Mohiniyattam exponent Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, who recently won the Padma Shri award, traces her journey in dance.

Although Kathakali was his first love, the romantic poet Vallathol was always beguiled by the sensuousness of Mohiniyattam. Braving all odds, he added Mohiniyattam to the curriculum of Kerala Kalamandalam soon after its founding. The Kalamandalam School of Mohiniyattam nurtured quite a number of dancers from the late 1930's. Some of these dancers, through their passion and devotion to the dance form, brought out the uniqueness of this female dancing tradition. Among them is Kalamandalam Kshemavathy (Kshema). Recognitions and titles that have come her way include the Central and State Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards and more recently, the Padma Shri. Incidentally, she is the first Mohiniyattam dancer from Kerala to win this national honour.

Humble beginning

Born in Thrissur in 1948, Kshema's entry to the world of dance was not pre-planned. Her family did not have any links to the performing arts. Her father however, was fond of traditional arts and her elder sister had a short stint in theatre as an actor. Even as a child, Kshema displayed an inclination towards dance as she observed and picked up dance moves from Malayalam movies. She was enrolled at Kerala Kalamandalam as a Mohiniyattam student at the age of 10.

Under Thottasserry Chinnammu Amma and Kalamandalam Satyabhama, Kshema learnt the adavus, the lyrical nuances and the characterisations within Mohiniyattam. She also learnt the rudiments of Bharatanatyam.

With a diploma in dance in hand, Kshemavathy stepped out of her alma mater. In 1964, she founded Kerala Kalamandir in her home town with the purpose of training youngsters in different dance disciplines. “To be honest, I was not charmed by Mohiniyattam then. Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi with their relatively fast tempo were my interests,” admits Kshema, who learnt Bharatanatyam under Muthuswamy Pillai and Chitra Viswesara in Chennai. She also took lessons in Kuchippudi under the legendary, Vempati Chinna Satyam between 1976 and 1979.

It was her first solo Mohiniyattam recital at Vallathol Centenary Celebrations in New Delhi in 1979 that made her re-examine her approach to and involvement in Mohiniyattam. Her portrayal of the Swati Tirunal varnam, ‘Daani saamajendragaamini' in raga Thodi and in Adi tala left a spectacular impression in the minds of the rasikas.

Little did she realise then that her taste for and interest in music had percolated into her movement-techniques and emotional articulations. From then onwards, she identified the slow-paced, undulating movements and graceful expressions of Mohiniyattam as her forte. Kshema thereafter performed the items she learnt at Kalamandalam besides choreographing umpteen varnams and padams, drawing inspiration from diverse lyrical sources. “Of all the items I have composed so far, ‘Saptanaayika' with verses from Jayadeva's ‘Geetagovindam' is closest to my heart. It unravels the moods of the Nayika from viraholkhandita to swadheenapathitha,” says Kshema.

Majestic stage presence

The young Kshema soon enamoured audiences with her majestic stage-presence. Her bhava-laden eyes, expressive face and graceful movements were a visual treat for rasikas everywhere. While presenting the varnam, the piece de resistance of a Mohiniyattam recital, Kshema's dexterity in dance and the unblemished theatrical tones touching the inner recesses of the Nayika's sentiments bore an imprint hitherto unknown to the tradition.

Instinctively wedded to various rhythmic combinations and tempo-formations, she could lend structural logic to any new item chosen for choreography. Enchanted by literary images, Kshema has provided visual syntax to the widely acclaimed poems of Sugathakumari. Irayimman Thampi's lullaby, ‘Omanathinkal' gets a refreshing fragrance when Kshema performs it to the lilting melody of raga Kurinji.

Those who do well on stage may not be outstanding teachers or choreographers, but Kshema is skilled in both the areas.

Like the maestros of her age, Kshema too is apprehensive of the reckless experiments the young dancers of the day are engaged in. “When it comes to the basic postures such as aramandalam and muzhumundalam, several of the highly praised Mohiniyattam dancers of the day fall short of precision and patience. But, I must add that the dance cannot rely exclusively on the treasures of its past. It has to move on and in the process, contemporary events become the dancers' concern,” avers the dancer.

This down-to-earth dancer embraces the ups and downs in life without losing her composure. She lost her husband, Pavitran, an ace film director, a couple of years ago. Kshema has no tall claims about her achievements.

“I haven't done anything substantial other than safeguarding and promoting the Mohiniyattam baani upheld by Kalamandalam. My individual contribution to the dance itself is limited to some embellishments to its craft and content.” Kshema has a host of disciples to her credit. A few among them have grown to become professional dancers. But the discipline she has imparted to the Kalari and the idiom she established on stage are still to be realised or surpassed by her successors.