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Updated: August 15, 2013 18:44 IST

Lyrical feminism

Anjana Rajan
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Beyond the surface: Kanak Rele.
The Hindu Beyond the surface: Kanak Rele.

Twenty years after publishing her book on Mohiniattam, veteran dancer Kanak Rele has brought out a revised edition with renewed vigour

Guru Kanak Rele, among the pioneers who researched and revived Mohiniattam and was instrumental in its getting recognised as one of the major classical dance forms of India, comes across as one who has become used to facing opposition with strength of conviction. It was two decades ago that she came out with her book “Mohini Attam: The Lyrical Dance”, and recently the Nalanda Dance Research Centre of which she is the founder came out with a “totally revised edition”.

While the first edition concentrated on the performance aspect or prayoga of dance, this one, as she points out in the preface, is on the shastra or theory aspect. However, it is not, the title notwithstanding, confined merely to a study of Mohiniattam, and logically so, since no art has evolved in isolation.

People tend to “just adlib” about the spiritual background of forms such as Bharatanatyam and Odissi, she points out over phone from Mumbai. For example, it is routinely stated that Bharatanatyam is a temple art that was performed by the devadasis, or that Odissi is associated with Jayadeva, she notes, but they are not interested in investigating this background, or the wider environment in which these arts have been nurtured, developing through a process of cultural osmosis.

Mohinyattam, unlike Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Manipuri which are closely associated with prayer and ritual, is a secular art, says the veteran. “None of the texts ever tell you that it was a temple art,” she explains. But that doesn’t mean it was cheap entertainment either.

Having been closely associated with other pioneering artists such as Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Kapila Vatsyayana and Kavalam Narayana Panikkar among others, she says, “All these people inspired me.” Therefore she has undertaken a painstaking process of discovery of the art, of rebutting commonly held opinions, and building a theory of its sources that could be corroborated by references in ancient texts.

By the early decades of the 20th Century, Mohiniattam was considered by many as an obscene art. “And the word Mohini came to be interpreted as enchantress. I like (the word) enchantment, but it is not a dance of allurement,” she clarifies.

During her researches, as she travelled through Kerala, meeting practitioners and scholars, filming and making notes, she recalls, she was accompanied by her husband and young son. This assured people that she was from a ‘good’ family — with a law degree from Britain to boot — and people would ask her what brought her to research this “dirty dance.”

“One day I flared up and asked what do you mean dirty dance? The person watching might be dirty, the performer might perform it that way, but the dance cannot be dirty,” she relates. But that was only an episode in a long drawn out process.

It is the internal grace that she has been trying to emphasise and which she feels justified in having re-established as the basis of this dance form over the years. While the scholars guided her, the critics slowly came round to her opinion. Recently the veteran, named for the Padma Bhushan in 2013, was honoured in Kerala. “They called me Narthana Vidushi,” she says with a tinge of humour, adding, “There were hordes of youngsters – such attitude they had! — trying to dance Mohiniattam. Good, I am glad.”

“Lyrical feminism” is how she terms the essence of Mohinyattam. The art was always practised by women. “I have never seen anywhere that a man practised it,” she says, remarking that the male teacher was called the nattuvan. Kuchipudi was danced by men in women’s roles, Kathakali featured men in stree vesham, and the gotipua dancers were boys dressed as girls, but Mohiniattam performers were only women.

“This is one dance that stood out, not trammelled by shackles. It is an ode to feminity.” It is an example of the Shakti inherent in woman being venerated, she says, pointing out, “All Kerala worships Shakti.”

This feminity or inner grace is subtle but strong, like salt. “You prepare your food in any way but the texture and taste will always be brought out only by adding salt. This applies to food anywhere in the world. Lavana (in Sanskrit) is salt.” Therefore, that invisible quality, that inner feminine beauty which makes a woman look beautiful without showing off the physical attributes, is known as lavanya. Therefore, “lavanya nartana” is how she likes to call Mohiniattam.

Remarking that the Mother figure has always been venerated across the world, she adds, “The concept is not spiritual as such; it is inherent. That is the female energy which comes out strongly in Mohiniattam.” STEP BY STEP

Kanak Rele says she has escaped the usual problems that come with age thanks to her practice of dance, Yoga and Kalaripayattu. She has been working for over 25 years on a concept of movement science for the physically challenged. Today many of her students work with the differently abled, and she is moving towards establishing, along with other experts, a university department of movement science and instituting a degree course.

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