Mohiniyattam artiste Sunanda Nair holds aloft the tradition of her guru Kanak Rele.
Kanak Rele, the feted Mohiniyattam performer and researcher, is perhaps the first artiste to provide a scientific temper and academic configuration to Kerala's ‘dance of the enchantress.' Even those who differ with the theoretical and practical perspectives of Rele in regard to Mohiniyattam can scarcely dismiss her contributions as an academic.
Nalanda Dance Research Center that Rele founded in Mumbai more than a quarter of a century ago, has given rise to some astute dancers. The numero uno among them is perhaps Sunanda Nair, an authentic practitioner of the Mohiniyattam genre that Rele fostered as a distinct discipline.
It is a bit unusual for an artiste to be simultaneously in love with three highly charged art forms – Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. Sunanda was inexplicably drawn towards all three forms that demand different body kinetics. It was Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Warrier and C. Gopalakrishnan who familiarised her with the aesthetic undercurrents of Kathakali. A host of gurus including Kalaimamani Kadirvelu imparted training to her in Bharatanatyam. And for Mohiniyattam, Sunanda had the privilege to learn under Rele herself. The holistic training she received under Rele was decisive in the sense that Sunanda soon became the inheritor of a new legacy in the field of Mohiniyattam. The empirical bliss she gained from the other two art forms prompted her to peruse the intricacies of lasya in the female dancing tradition.
Unlike similar classical traditions, the identity of Mohiniyattam was a complex question hitherto. The exponents of this dance form have often differed in the underlying principles of its movement techniques and the range of its rasabhinaya.
Being the disciple of an imaginative dancer and choreographer like Rele, Sunanda exercises an enormous amount of freedom in the aaharya, aangika and saatwikaabhinayas of Mohiniyattam. Slow, medium and swift tempos abound in her treatment of the major Swati Tirunal or Irayimman Thampi compositions.
Interpretative dance is her forte. ‘Poonthennermozhi,' the Swati Tirunal composition, the padam ‘Prananayaka' and the lullaby ‘Omanathingal' of Thampi comfortably establish Sunanda's proficiency as a dancer. She unfailingly sustains symmetry between nritya (expressional dance) and natya (histrionics) in the presentation of even the highly erotic Geetagovinda. And dramatic she is especially in the portrayal of the sringara rasa as Krishna, Radha or the Gopikas in the Ashtapadi.
Her meticulous facial expressions, especially the netrabhinaya, are an admirable influence from Kathakali while the agility in executing the footsteps with such rhythmic precision is the outcome of her affinity with Bharatanatyam. Sunanda's undulating torso movements accompanied by the musical rendition akin to the Kerala temple tradition of singing and playing bear the influence of Kavalam's creative encounters with the Mohiniyattam repertoire of Rele.
For those who cannot digest a fast-paced Mohiniyattam, Sunanda says: “There is no deliberate attempt to skip the slow pace . I honestly believe that going into a faster tempo doesn't ever compromise on the lasya aspect in Mohiniyattam.”
In Sunanda's Mohiniyattam recital, a discerning mind can make out a subtle revolt against the conventional aesthetic canons like slow tempo and a subdued mimetic language. The nayikas/sakhis she identifies with enchant viewers.
Changes in aharya
On the changes she has brought to the aharya Sunanda says: “No, it doesn't tell upon the form or content of Mohiniyattam. Its aharya is influenced by local dressing habits in Kerala, where the sweltering summer requires people to wear softer colours, such as white, which is poignantly reflected in the Mohiniyattam aharya. Earlier, there were a limited number of recitals and the gold kasavu costume was the favorite of all Mohiniyattam performers. But in the present time, with more and more performances, the dancer enjoys a small change in her aharya, which is visible in the costumes of Malayalis in general too. Mohiniyattam is an international dance and the small change in aharya has been acknowledged by rasikas all over the world.”
Hailing from Palakkad, Sunanda spent her younger days in Mumbai. She moved to the United States after her marriage but she did not part with Mohiniyattam. Even off stage, her mind traverses the tender-emotions of the separated and the re-united nayikas. She returns to Mumbai and Kerala at least twice a year to enrapture rasikas. For her, dance is not a way of life. Rather it is a priceless object for self-expression.