Mohiniyattam danseuse Pallavi Krishnan has the distinction of being an alumnus of both Shantiniketan and Kerala Kalamandalam. Her passion for Mohiniyattam led this native of West Bengal to Kerala to pursue the art form. Eventually, she settled in Thrissur, where she founded the Lasya Academy of Mohiniyattam in 1994. A recipient of the Kerala Sangeet Nataka Akademi award in 2008, Pallavi leaves no stone unturned to popularise the art form in India and abroad. Excerpts from an interview when she came to Thiruvananthapuram to participate in the Nishagandhi Festival.
On choosing Mohiniyattam
All through my childhood, I had a passion for dance. Growing up in Durgapur, West Bengal, there was not much of an opportunity to learn dance apart from Kathak from a teacher who came once a week, all the way from Kolkata to conduct classes for the local children. I thought I would go the academic route just like other members in my family. So I ended up studying Bioscience in college.
Following the heart
Although I did quite well, I knew that my heart was not in academics so I enrolled for my second undergraduate degree in dance (Kathakali, Manipuri and Rabindra Sangeeth) from Santiniketan. It was there that I met guru Kalamandalam Shankaranarayanan, who told me that I had the grace and abhinaya best suited for Mohiniyattam – then an art form that I was not familiar with at all. I simply trusted his judgement and started learning Mohiniyattam from him through private lessons. Soon I became so enamoured of the art form that I followed my guru's advice and set off to Kalamandalam in 1992 to begin my journey as a Mohiniyattam artiste.
Gurus and training
Guru Kalamandalam Shankaranarayanan literally changed my life to one that I now enjoy. It was he who convinced my father, Ratish Achajee, a senior engineer with the Damodar Valley Corporation, to let me relocate to Kerala all by myself and learn an art form, which he guaranteed, I was destined to perform. In fact, to get me accustomed to the life and culture of Kerala he even put me up at his house in Manjeri for about a fortnight before my course at Kalamandalam began. All my gurus and fellow students at Kalamandalam were supportive. Admittedly, it took a while to get accustomed to the exhaustive 16-hour-a-day training schedule at Kalamandalam as I was coming from the more liberal training ethos at Shantiniketan. But thankfully all that practice taught me the value of discipline. After basic training in an art form, I believe that one should learn to become a professional artiste. That is what I learnt from guru Bharati Shivaji. She taught me how to choose an item; how to choreograph an item; how to keep the audience interested, how to manage organisers and so on. Creating an item, she insisted, is not enough. Choreography should bloom like a flower. I watched and I learnt. She gave me the ‘can do' realisation to choreograph my own items.
Choreographies in Mohiniyattam
Apart from solo performances, I love doing group choreographies because it allows me to work with space and time – how to utilise space and make patterns with time. So far I have done four. The first was ‘Ritu Ranga' (2000), with which I wanted to integrate Malayali culture with Bengali culture. So I chose Rabindra Sangeeth and Sopanam music of Kerala as the music for Kalidasa's ‘Ritusamhar' and compositions of Tagore. I presented it all over India and abroad to much appreciation. ‘Salabhanjika,' the second one, is a twist to the Ahalyamoksham legend of the Ramayana and based on a short story by C.P. Unnikrishnan. Then I did a group choreography on Kalidasa's ‘Vikramorvashiam.' My latest is ‘Panchabhootas' – on the five ethereal elements. It is based on the ‘Soundaryalahari' of Sankaracharya and the Taittiriya Upanishad, which explains the union of matter with energy as is manifested in the five elements.
Renaissance in Mohiniyattam
Mohiniyattam has gone through a renaissance many times. It had a renaissance under Swati Tirunal, then again at Kalamandalam and now innovations are being brought in. Kerala has so many traditional and ritualistic art forms, when compared to other States. Kathakali and Koodiyattam, being male-dominated, naturally enjoyed more popularity and for a long while Mohiniyattam, sadly, was sidelined. Thanks to the structure laid down by dancer-scholars such as Kalyanikutty amma, Kalamandalam Satyabhama and the efforts of people like Bharati Sivaji and Kanak Rele, the face of Mohiniyattam has changed. When I first came to Kerala it was mainly performed as part of other choreographies but now Mohiniyattam has a good stage, both nationally and abroad.