Kalamandalam Leelamma’s Mohiniyattom session for the Natya Kala Conference was preceded by an introduction by Kalamandalam V. Kaladharan who minced no words in reiterating that whether Mohiniyattom evolved from Dasiyattam or from Kerala dances of Nangiar koothu or Tali Nangas, is still disputed. But that despite Thottaserry Chinammu Ammal’s fading recall of old items in the 1930s and Vallathol’s revival struggles at Kalamandalam enabled a slow build-up of a new repertoire for Mohiniyattom is an established fact.
Kaladharan expressed personal dissatisfaction with some recent trends in the dance form which according to him went against the very principles of a form primarily designed for lasya. Leelamma’s disciples, epitomising co-ordinated grace, presented the Chokettu and tillana. It was the guru’s demonstration of the varnam ‘Saami Ninne Nammi’ in Yadukulakhambodi and also her choreography based on a lyric by Kilamanur Madhu, in Simhendramadhyamam, with a sequence showing Ahalya Shapavimochanam, that the audience was treated to contained Mohiniyattom abhinaya and aesthetic understatement.
On the question of the exact measurements of the andolika sway of the torso in Mohiniyattom (which in some cases is highly exaggerated) Leelamma, pointing to the Vaishnava sthanam or main (plie) half-seated central stance of the dance, made the pertinent point that the tip of the sideways knee deflection should be regarded as the farthest point, beyond which the torso incline disturbs the central line.
Under the supervision of the theatre specialist, Dulal Roy, and the Bhogpur Sattra Majuli guru Manik Bora Barbayan leading the team with the Kamalabari Sattra-trained dancer Naren Chandra Barua and with English introductions for each aspect by Mallika Kandali, the session on Sattriya dance had a very professional outfit making the best use of time.
A blend of Assamese art forms such as Ankia Nat and Ojhapali, 600-year-old Sattriya tradition, still performed entirely by male monks (doing female roles too) within the cloistered interiors of the Sattra, is, since the late 1950s, fifties, also evolving as a proscenium presentation by male and female performers. The Mati Akharas or ground exercises (64 in all), of which 22 were shown, are viewed as the preparatory part, though some of the Nritta Bhangis have been translated into the performance vocabulary too. Poses showing acts like ‘Asoi Pani Khua’ (tortoise drinking water) or the stork catching fish are unique.
The ‘Dandavati Kasok’ (where the disciple lying on his stomach has the guru applying stress and massage on parts of his backbone with his foot), and ‘Deha Arpanam’ (where the whole stretched body is an obeisance to the teacher) were demonstrated. Sattriya differentiates between the male and female ‘Ora’ (main stance).
Right from the days of the Sattriya founder, Shrimanta Sankaradeva, the Vaishnavite reformer/ philosopher/playwright, the main Pada Karmas and Pada Bhedas or feet movements have emerged out of the group Gayan/Bayan devotional playing on the Khol percussion, with the percussionists simultaneously dancing and using mudras. Glimpses of this were demonstrated. Nritta items were explained such as Sali Naach, Rajghoria Naach (for female dancers), Ramdani Naach (done to fixed Bols), Melar Naach (more elaborate pure dance) and Gitor Naach, where the lyric and interpretative dance are featured.
Sattriya’s many variations in pirouettes (‘Pak’ like Hari pak, Akol pak, Kati pak, Titha pak) and jumps (‘Jap’) were demonstrated. There was a brief explanation of the Bargeet (lyrics composed by Sankaradeva and disciple Madhavadeva) as raga based songs and demonstration of the tala system which is elaborate and distinctive. To watch Manik Borbayan in fleeting demonstrations was to see sheer musicality of body movement in action.
After such enlightenment, the conference ended on a high note with the Chhau session, admirably designed by Seraikella guru Sashadhar Acharya, who uniquely covered all the three Chhau traditions - Seraikella in Singhbhum, Purulia Chhau from Bengal and Mayurbhanj Chhau (Odisha) originating in the reign of Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanja Deo in Odisha (Orissa) during the 18 century. All these emerged from the Pharikhanda, a system of exercises practised by the militia and soldiers. Each tradition has its own identity and with one dancer for each tradition on stage the audience was treated to a comparative assessment of Topkas (basic steps) and Uflis (jumping). One saw the lyricism of Seraikella Chhau with the delicate masks (making breathing and ability to size steps difficult) where the body kinetics alone has to bring out the mood in items such as ‘Ratri,’ the vigour of Mayurbhanj Chhau movements done without the mask and the face fully involved in creating the ambience in dynamic items such as Natraj, Sabor Toka, Dandi and Jamdeb, and the acrobatic Purulia Chhau with its somersaults, and the dancer’s twirls-in-the-air landing on his knee caps. Items like Mahishasuramardini, with strutting and posing, generally show good triumphing over evil. Practised by the Mahato, Kurmi, Bhumija, Deowa, Bhauma and Dom communities, Purulia has strong folk associations, while the other two traditions, given royal patronage, through interaction with other forms, blended many influences. It is the mix of gravitation defying movements in the air along with fully grounded movements that has attracted several choreographers to Chhau to use this form in dance drama productions. The music with no sahitya, rendered with the traditional drum Dhumsa, Dhol (a cylindrical drum), reed pipe Mahuri, Khadka and bamboo flute has now got the sophisticated Shehnai. The entire description on music evolution by Sashadhar from Jhumar to Bengal Kirtans to the sophisticated raga playing on the Shehnai was very illuminating.