Kanak Rele's role in the revival and popularisation of Mohiniyattam has been singular. A scholar of repute, her contributions towards analysing the dance form on the basis of aesthetics and kinetics have been exemplary. It was her passion for the dance form that motivated her to establish Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Mumbai, perhaps the first institution in the country to train students for a university degree in Mohiniyattam. It has also been recognised as a research institute by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. Over the past three decades and more, the institute has produced a generation of professional dancers known for their artistry and virtuosity.

Excerpts from an interview with her:

In the midst of art and culture

I belong to an aristocratic, educated Gujarati family where it was an accepted custom for girls to learn arts and culture. As a child, I was good in my studies. At the same time, dance fascinated me. Luckily for me, I had been exposed to some forms early in my life. I was mesmerised by maestros like Kunju Nair (Kathakali), Kelucharan Mahapatra (Odissi), Balasaraswathy (Bharatanatyam), Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma (Kuchipudi) and also my revered guru ‘Panchali' Karunakara Panicker. While staying in Santiniketan, Kolkata, along with my uncle, I got the opportunity to watch Kathakali and Mohiniyattam at close quarters. A significant turn in my life was when guru Karunakara Panicker accepted me as a student. He stayed with us and groomed me from the age of seven. I trained under him even after my marriage and studies abroad.

Good academic record

At school, I stayed away from all extra-curricular activities as I had to get up at five in the morning for ‘kannu sadhakam.' Since I did well in my studies, I got selection for medicine. In fact, I paid the fees but declined to continue as my infatuation was with dance. This was a bold decision for which I got support from my fiancé. Then I joined the Government Law College and did Industrial Law. I came out with flying colours. For post graduation, I got selected for International Law at the Manchester University, in the United Kingdom. Since my specialisation was civil aviation, I was offered a plum post in Air India by J.R.D. Tata, who was my uncle's neighbour. All hell broke loose at home when I refused the offer and declared that I had already made up my mind to become a professional dancer. But my husband stood by me and so did my guru Karunakara Panicker without whose guidance I would not have become what I am today.

Enchanted by Mohiniyattam

Kalamandalam Rajalakshmi's presence in Mumbai helped me get initiated into Mohiniyattam. By then my guru had transformed me into an accomplished Kathakali dancer. Even as lessons in Mohiniyattam progressed, the desire to delve into this lovely lasya dance form burgeoned in me. I was fortunate to receive a study grant from Sangeet Natak Akademi at this juncture. It enabled me to visit Kerala, meet knowledgeable people and get introduced to the nuances of the dance form. A grant from the Ford Foundation helped me film exponents such as Kalpurathe Kunjukutty Amma, Thottassery Chinnammu Amma and Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma. Even as I could recreate the dance form based on its traditional, technical format, I was successful in evolving a teaching methodology as well.

In the company of pundits

In my attempt to put Mohiniyattam on a ‘sastric' base, I got advice and help from a group of veterans that included famous Indologist Dr. Moti Chandra, Professor Upadhyay of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bharatha Iyer, author of the first English book on Kathakali, Dr. V. Raghavan, G. Venkatachalam who had associated with Vallathol, Balakrishna Kurup, son of Vallathol, and so on. I delved into treatises such as the Natyasastra, Sangeetharatnakara, and Balaramabharatam and built a strong foundation for my work. The Department of Fine Arts in Bombay University was started thanks to my initiative for which, apart from the then Vice-Chancellor Dr .T K Tope, Vembatti Chinna Sathyam, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Balakrishna Kurup and Dr. Moti Chandra were instrumental. My institution was affiliated to the university and we started B.FA, M.FA and Ph.D courses.

Kavalam's advent

In 1982, I had a providential meeting with scholar, poet and playwright Kavalam Narayana Panicker who introduced me to Sopana Sangeetham. He insisted that if Mohiniyattam is to retain its essential esoteric Kerala traits, it should be performed only to Sopana Sangeetham. I followed this dictum and the results were path breaking. I met and recorded maestros Njaralath Rama Poduval, Janardahanan Nedungadi, and Mullamottu Harihara Bhagavathar and choreographed several items that still retain the individuality. My inspiration to choreograph myriad productions to highlight the trauma of women in society, based on women characters in mythology, has been Kavalam's compositions. I have to my credit a host of several other choreographies that have been widely applauded and emulated by other dancers.

Books and new courses

My books ‘Mohiniyattom, The Lyrical Dance' and ‘Bhavaniroopana' are eloquent enough to explain the aesthetics and kinetics unique to the dance form. I have been honoured by the State and central Akademis and by the Government of India. But I feel that dance has to serve more social causes. It is with this end in view that we are starting courses in dance therapy and also those for fitness and wellness.