Mohiniyattam danseuse Smitha Rajan is a purist who sticks to the traditional framework of Mohiniyattam.
As the very first student of Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam, Kalyanikutty Amma had adamantly retained her stylistics till her last breath. She had left it to her daughters, Sreedevi and Kala, to preserve it against all odds. Sreedevi's daughter is Smitha Rajan who has dedicated her life to the cause of Mohiniyattam.
Although based in the United States (U.S.), Smitha is a traditionalist, upholding the mission of espousing the bani of Mohiniyattam she imbibed from her celebrated grandmother and her aunt, Kala Vijayan. Smitha's grace befits the undulating movements of Mohiniyattam while her face is capable of evoking a broad spectrum of expressions. Smitha has kept intact the simple, yet dignified costume of Mohiniyattam by shunning colourful and ornamental borders for the sari and blouse. She is a well- trained Bharatanatyam dancer and Kathakali actor as well. Although she is at ease with all the three disciplines, Smitha, years ago,decided to devote her attention exclusively to Mohiniyattam.
Excerpts from an interview:
What made you shift from Bharatanatyam to Mohiniyattam?
During my formative years, I did Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam since I have learnt both. Later on, I shifted completely to Mohiniyattam due to three reasons. The first and main reason is that Mohiniyattam is so natural to me, my land, my culture, and my surroundings. Then, from my childhood I had seen my grandmother's effort and involvement in reviving this art form. So I believe it is my moral responsibility to carry on that effort to really materialise some of her efforts and stick to the focus she has given to this art form. This is a strong and personal reason to dedicate myself to this art form.
Again, in Mohiniyattam abhinaya takes a central role. It makes you spiritually and emotionally involved. I am looking for an ideal platform from where I can really explore the full potential of abhinaya and communicate with my audience. Mohiniyattam offers that type of a platform and being a student of my grandfather, especially in ‘Mukhajabhinaya,' it became easy for me to improvise abhinaya in Mohiniyattam. And that is another strong reason why I chose Mohiniyattam as my medium of artistic expression. Although I have stopped performing Bharatanatyam on stage, I do train students in the U.S.
Do the fast tempos interfere with the organic structure of Mohiniyattam?
Yes and no! If the fast tempo surpasses the natural boundaries that Mohiniyattam offers then it interferes with the natural flow of the dance form.
While the varnams and the padams are almost always performed in the slow-medium tempos, ‘Saptham,' an item which my grandmother had revived, comfortably crosses over to the fast tempos. Pakarnattams too call for fast-tempo execution of movements and emotions while portraying different characters. If the dancer is capable of identifying with the lyrics and the contextual transitions, fast tempos seldom become inappropriate.
You seem to be inclined towards the narrative segment of Mohiniyattam?
To an extent it is true. I see a performing art form as a medium of communication. The whole idea of a performing art form is not just a physical exercise or expression of just some physical movements. Dance can spiritually deliver a message so naturally. Being a performer who wants to communicate with the audience, I am trying to convey the message that my items incorporate.
I always make sure that they reach the audience. Thus it can be true that I give emphasis to the narrative segment of Mohiniyattam. But when it comes to the complete repertoire, I revel in the pure dance forms too, such as Cholkettu, Jathiswaram and Thillana. I do have a strong attachment towards the traditional repertoire of Mohiniyattam.
Has your training in Kathakali influenced the sentimental portrayals of the nayikas in Mohiniyattam?
Yes. To a certain extent, my initiation into Kathakali has helped me mould the emotional representations in Mohiniyattam. But I haven't allowed my characterisations to become over dramatic or prolonged as in Kathakali. I don't do anything on stage for effect.
My presentations are fully backed by understanding of and involvement in the text and the contexts. I always try to make my characters natural. My grandfather has taught me the three expressional stages: ‘saameepyam' (go near the character, or understand), ‘saaroopyam' (to behave or imitate the character) and ‘thaadatmyam' (become or change over to the character).
Doesn't the music of Mohiniyattam in Carnatic classical mode affect shake the identity of the dance form?
Yes. I do agree. In my choreography, I incorporate chollus that are akin to our indigenous percussion music. The vocal music is still to become full fledged ‘abhinayasangeetam.' I hope the music of Mohiniyattam will secure its identity in the near future.
Do the navarasas have ample scope in Mohiniyattam?
Yes, Mohiniyattam can bring the full spectrum of life in its portrayal. Navarasas are readily accessible to the thematic framework of this dance form.
An item like Slokam or Saptham offers the dancer lots of space for the portrayal of the navarasas, and thereby it pushes the boundaries of the nayika. Right from my grandmother's time, this has been proved beyond any misgiving.