Bharati Shivaji has played a significant role in reviving and redefining the performance, music and repertoire of Mohiniyattam.

With all its lyrical charm and sublimated sensuousness, Mohiniyattam, the female dance form of Kerala, was able to attain national acclaim and acceptance only in the latter half of the last century. In those days, only a few dancers succeeded in challenging absurd prejudices associated with this rich lasya tradition. Of them, Bharati Shivaji is an icon who blazed a trail with conviction and missionary zeal.

From the 1980's till today, Bharati has singularly entranced rasikas all over the world with a unique idiom that is intrinsic to Kerala. Among the many honours she has received so far are the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Padma Shri.

Initial steps

The Tanjavur-born Bharati spent her childhood in north India. She learnt Bharatanatyam from Lalita Shastri from Kalakshetra. Soon afterwards, Bharati was drawn to the enticing lyrics of Odissi, which Kelucharan Mahopatra and a few great gurus of his generation revived from the Gottipua and Mahari traditions of Orissa. She learnt Odissi from Kelucharan and Thrinath Maharana. For a short while, she sang for recitals of Odissi danseuse Samjukta Paanigrahi.

During this period, Bharati happened to see a Mohiniyattam presentation of Indrani Rahman. “The emotional correlation between the body movements and the myriad bhavas of Mohiniyattam moved me beyond words. A call from deep within prompted me to choose this as my sacred means of self-expression,” recalls Bharati. She was initiated into the basics of Mohiniyattam by Kalamandalam Radha Marar. Once she mastered the adavus and items of its limited repertoire, Bharati felt the need for exploring the aesthetic and spiritual terrains of the sringara rasa embedded in Mohiniyattam.

The evolution of Odissi as a stylistically nuanced dance was enough inspiration for Bharati to deconstruct the received structure of Mohiniyattam. The late Kamaladevi Chatopadhyaya encouraged her urge to reinvent the tradition of Mohiniyattam based on the ritual, folk and classical dance-theatre traditions of Kerala. Acquaintance with Kavalam Narayana Paniker had a profound impact on the dancer who began thinking in terms of the indigenous performing arts, both visual and aural. Back in Delhi, she made a bold attempt to redefine Mohiniyattam in relation to Krishnanattam, Kaikottikkali, Theyyam, Padayani, Thayambaka and Sopana Sangeetham.

Movements and music of these time-tested art forms found a fresh meaning and expression in the items she choreographed such as ‘Ganapatistuti,' ‘Thauryathrikam,' Ashtapadi and the Jeeva. Bharati substituted the swara segment of the conventional varnams with the vaytharis (pnemonics) of the edakka kooru and the thayambaka.

“I have been misunderstood as one who made revolutionary changes in the structure and content of Mohiniyattam. While looking at Mohiniyattam, I found that it had been sandwiched between Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. I wondered why one of the most graceful of our dance traditions turned away from the variegated treasures of Kerala's performing arts and became susceptible to alien influences. I therefore decided to re-align the dance-form with the resources it is privileged to be in possession of.”

Tonal diversity

Bharati re-apprised the four-fold concept of acting in Mohiniyattam in its entirety. She further simplified the make-up and costume. Her vocalists, Sadanam Radhakrishnan and later Sadanam Rajagopal, were given the liberty to apply the bhava nuances of Kathakali music to the ‘vachikabhinaya' of Mohiniyattam. Kavalam Padmanabhan and Sadanam Jyothi accompanied the vocalists in sync with the gamaka-laden renditions of the lyrics of Swati Tirunal, Irayimman Thampi and Kavalam. Veena replaced the violin. The voice of the edakka proved to have a symbiotic link with the rest of the musical instruments. The end result was spectacular.

Bharati's recitals began brimming with an ambience that was native to Kerala.

“I strongly doubt whether Mohiniyattam provides any scope for nritta, the so called pure dance. One cannot intercept the emotional continuity of Mohiniyattam by displaying his/her rhythmic brilliance unlike in Bharatanatyam or Kuchippudi. And to be frank, I hate the translation of Mohiniyattam as the ‘dance of the enchantress.”'

The textual and structural alterations introduced by Bharati received bouquets and brick-bats. But having intimately realised the soul of this dance-heritage, Bharati reveled in its sinuous movements and dynamics and in the expressions of the nayika with an unswerving commitment.

Her presentation of the item ‘Thauryathrikam' is a lyrical cascade set to chembada, panchari, triputa and eka talas. Similarly, the Swati padam ‘Poonthenermozhi' in raga Anandabhairavi is a rare gem in Bharati's repository. Here she is one with the nayika who laments her separation while awaiting reunion with her Lord. When visualising Irayimman Thampi's lullaby ‘Omanathingal,' Bharati conveys a calmness and compassion that is in sync with the lyrics. Of all the Ashtapadis, ‘Rathisukhasaare' in raga Kedaragowla is a momentous choreography of Bharati.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Bharati's negotiations with Mohiniyattam has emboldened young dancers to go in for experimentations sans wisdom and logistics.

Bharati was in Kerala for a brief visit to arrange 80 Mohiniyattam dancers for the opening day programme of the Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in October along with other Indian classical dances. To a question whether Mohiniyattam as a solo dance recital is dying out, she replied. “May be you're right. Still I would love to see Mohiniyattam alive at least as a group-performance.”

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