Bharathi Shivaji, the renowned Mohiniyattam exponent, speaks of her tryst with the form and what she did with it. The extraordinary dancer was in Bangalore for a lecture demonstration and a performance. Excerpts from the interview
Bharathi Shivaji, the phenomenal dancer with a Padmashree to her credit, is synonymous with Mohiniyattam. Her tryst with Mohiniyattam began at a time when the dance form was waning due to gross neglect in it very own region of origin. When there were no takers for this exquisite dance form, Bharathi took it up and explored its many layers with an academic zeal. She sought the feminine spirit, quintessential to the form.
The extraordinary dancer was in Bangalore for a lecture demonstration and a performance. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you undertake research with various maestros of Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Nangiar Koothu that enabled you to infuse Mohiniyattam with new insights?
My research was partly observation, partly first-hand information. I went to the original source, the historians, and the scholars. I interacted during my research with the gurus of the practitioners of the various dance drama traditions (Koodiyattam, Krishnattam, Kathakali), the ritualistic and the proto-dramatic dance drama tradition, the semi-classical recreational dance forms, the musical tradition (sopanam) and the interdisciplinary tradition. For instance, literary, sculptural, architectural, all helped me to understand the common trend that interconnect these traditional forms and what I noticed was a strong “desi” element which was evident in the tala pattern, the usage of percussion. Example, the Tyambaka and the Pancha Vadyam.
It was Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay who insisted that you step into the world of Mohiniyattam. How did the scene look then?
I felt the form had enormous, inherent potential, but it had not been tapped enough. When I delved into the research work, I realised that much of the form's beauty had remained undiscovered.
What kind of support did your research get?
All the support was given to me by Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, who single-handedly supported me during the research. Her individual concern for the dance form acted as a strong support for me to get started on the research. This freedom fighter revived the entire small scale handicrafts and cottage industries along with lesser-known art forms.
How did you establish Mohiniyattam as the most important classical dance form in the world Chapter?
After working on Mohiniyattam at the grass root level (the regional level), I wanted Mohiniyattam to interact with other disciplines. Then it was important to see Mohiniyattam grow at every level and widen the horizon by introducing topics for the global audience. Basically, it was a collection of all the materials during the interaction with other Gurus culminating in choreographing items of high sophistication and having the characteristics of desi elements of the Kerala Tradition. Last, but not the least, choreographing pieces like Tchaikovsky's “The Swan Lake” in the Mohiniyattam genre enabled me to reach to the world audience at large.
You have included ashtapadi in the Mohiniyattam syllabus. Will you speak about your understanding of music and the role it plays in dance?
Music for me has always played a vital role in new choreography compositions and enhancing the repertoire. It has constantly inspired me and while looking at the desi elements, what attracted me were the ashtapadis being sung in the temples of Kerala in a distinct manner, so different from the other traditions/styles popularly known as the “Kotipadi Seva” ritual (‘Koti' means beating of the edakkya and ‘padi' means singing). The ashtapadis were sung to awaken the Lord and to put him to sleep. This ritual attracted me the most. The ashtapadis are sung in the kirtan style in Manipur, Orissa and Bhajan style in Tamil Nadu which were in vogue in the classical dance forms of these states. The unique Sopanam rendition of the ashtapadis was indigenous and appropriate to the movement of Mohiniyattam along with edakkya as the percussion with the lyrical quality being highly appropriate for the dance form.
Is there a common philosophy that binds all South Indian dance forms?
All the south Indian traditions speak of the physical seeking the metaphysical that is the human soul merging with the divine. Also, the other common thing is the manner in which Bhakti is humanised.
Why did Bharatanatyam become the defining dance form of South India?
Bharatanatyam was one of the first classical dance forms to be revived and of the earliest forms to have been structured.
Suddenly there is a shift in tastes: from classical to contemporary.
There is a season for everything. There is a season for a particular dance like Salsa. They become popular for sometime, people enjoy and then it dies out. It is not bad; however, all these are temporary. It cannot hold the audience for a long time as it lacks aesthetics. Classical dance forms are everlasting. They will endure.
In our review of Bharathi Shivaji's performance last week (July 23, 2010), the cholkettu, a technical dance number in Mohiniyattam, was wrongly attributed to her performance, while it was dealt in great detail at the workshop conducted by her. The error is regretted.