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Updated: December 12, 2013 16:46 IST

Beyond convention

Ambili Ramnath
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Mohiniyattam dancer Vijayalakshmi
The Hindu Mohiniyattam dancer Vijayalakshmi

Vijayalakshmi, daughter of Mohiniyattam danseuse Bharati Shivaji, talks about making the art form her own.

“Dance has been a part of my life ever since I can remember,” says Vijayalakshmi, who shares an “intense” relationship with Mohiniyattam. She is the daughter and disciple of Mohiniyattam doyenne Bharathi Shivaji and is an accomplished Mohiniyattam artiste herself.

Born into a family for whom dance, music and literature is a way of life, it was little wonder that Vijaya tied the dancer’s anklets on her feet at a very young age, learning several dance forms. “Somewhere along the way, like my mother, I realised that I could identify myself only with Mohiniyattam; a medium that can truly portray all that has to be conveyed,” says Vijaya.

Her journey to Mohiniyattam, she says, has been one of “discovery, learning, imbibing, adapting, experimenting and innovating.” This, she adds, was greatly helped by the harmony of genes handed down to her – artistic ones from the maternal side and the scholastic ones from the paternal. Her family has a long tradition in, one that continues to this day.

Sankari Krishnamurthy, her maternal grandmother, is a Carnatic singer, a disciple of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, while her mother is also a trained vocalist in Carnatic music, Hindustani and Rabindra sangeet, who often provides vocal support for danseuses such as Sonal Mansingh. Little wonder then that Vijaya, who holds a post-graduate degree in English literature, has herself laid a few benchmarks in Mohiniyattam and music.

Her contributions have been recorded in the film Beyond Grace, directed by Sara and Urs Baur, for which she has sung, and which portrays four generations of women in Vijaya’s family, the fourth one being Nayantara, her 19-year-old daughter, who is fast proving herself to be a chip off the old block. “Adding to my blessings is the support and input from my husband, Narayan Pallavur, grandson of K.V. Krishna Iyer, well-known for his documentation of Kerala’s art history.”

Coming from a culture that is essentially Tamil, how has it been relating to an art form that is quintessentially Malayalam? “Actually, it is quite an advantage,” says Vijaya. “It lets me see the picture objectively and I am able to take a detached view of what is not Malayali about Mohiniyattam. As I once told a veteran artiste, I may not be proficient in Malayalam but I do understand the language of Mohiniyattam,” she adds.

Also, it was her passion to be au fait with this language that drew her to Kalaripayattu, in the movements of which she saw links to Mohiniyattam. Subsequently, she trained in the basics of the martial art form. A sequel to these efforts was ‘Unniyarcha’, with Vadakkanpattu lyrics, which she choreographed and produced. “Mohiniyattam has been portraying the languishing heroine too much and for too long. I wanted to present the true Indian woman – one who is emotionally strong, while standing firm on traditional values. Unniyarcha is that woman,” explains Vijaya.

And like the bold Unniyarcha, Vijaya has been breaking impeding barriers and pushing the boundaries to give new meaning and definition to Mohiniyattam, without contradicting tradition. ‘Paryapti’, her production that was inspired by the music and myths of Durga Puja re-examined the concept of sacredness and presented a blending of Malayali and Bengali culture. ‘Sita Soundarya’, based on ‘Ram Charit Manas’ of Tulsidas and Bhanu Singher ‘Padavali’, meanwhile, traversed unexplored grounds by interpreting Tagore’s earliest poems through Mohiniyattam.

‘Swan Lake’, her milestone production, is another stellar example of her bold innovation. A providential tryst in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics brought her in close contact with Russian literature and music. In particular, it drew her to Tchaikovsky’s music and naturally to the soul of his magnum opus, ‘Swan Lake’.

The “dream project” took shape when Vijaya as heroine, Odette, Bharathi Shivaji as the queen, and Santhosh Nair, skilled in Mayurbhanj Chhau, as the prince, along with several other dancers presented the Russian ballet in Mohiniyattam. When it debuted in New Delhi in 2005 before an international audience, the show raked in rave reviews from the audience and critics alike. This amalgamation proved hugely advantageous for Mohiniyattam, in that it opened up the arena to a worldwide audience. Things came full circle when ‘Swan Lake’ was staged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and in a sense, a sort of emotional home-coming too, when it was staged at the Conservatory Theatre in St. Petersburg, where Tchaikovsky learned music. Vijayalakshmi sees this appreciation as a tribute to her mother’s long years of dedication to Mohiniyattam and to help earn its rightful place on the international scenario.

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