In the oriental art tradition, the relation between the Guru and the Shishya is exemplary. Among traditional performing arts of Kerala, Mohiniyattam along with Kathakali fascinated Western artistes even in the early 20th century.
The first dancer to do historical research on Mohiniyattam based on what was available was Betty True Jones from the United States (U.S.) who landed at Kerala Kalamandalam in the early 1950’s along with her husband, Dr. Clifford R. Jones.
A little less than four decades later, Brigitte Chataignier from France became enchanted by the lyrical grace and poetic movements of Mohiniyattam. She reached Kalamandalam in 1987 and was under the tutelage of Kalamandalam Leelamma for three years with a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Her training in Mohiniyattam continued under Kalamandalam Kshemavathy. Inquisitive about the stylistic differences congenital to this dance tradition, Brigitte became the disciple of Devi Rajappan, Nirmala Panickar, Bharati Sivaji and the like. In 1995, she, with her Kathakali-trained husband, Michel, founded the Pran Company in France to promote Indian performing arts and contemporary forms. Brigitte has successfully facilitated several cultural exchange programmes between France and Kerala and has also made a documentary film on Mohiniyattam, which was directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Brigitte speaks about her life and career in her accented English.
Excerpts from the interview.
Contemporary dance to Mohiniyattam
I was a contemporary dancer in France. I learnt contemporary dance and mime in Paris under two teachers, one of whom was trained in Jawanese dance. In the Oriental art tradition, the relation between the guru and the shishya is exemplary. In course of time I came to know that in Indian dance, there is a whole lot of internal practice. This was a revelation to me. The urge to get familiarised with a traditional art outpaced my passion towards contemporary dance. This was the time I met my husband, Michel, who had been wedded to Kathakali.
On choosing Mohiniyattam over Bharatanatyam
In fact, I had learnt Bharatanatyam for a year under Savitri Nair in Paris. For some reason, I felt that my body does not conform to the techniques of Bharatanatyam. Hence I was on the lookout for a dance with mellowed movements and subdued expressions. Michel then advised me go for Mohiniyattam.
Your gurus and the Kalamandalam sambradaya
Through years of learning and rehearsing, I gradually realised the differences between the style of the Kalamandalam school and that of Kalyanikutty Amma, which prompted me to explore the variations as two separate streams. I have imbibed the ‘lasya’ from the dancing culture of Kalyanikutty Amma. Since my first exposure to Mohiniyattam was through the intensive practice at Kalamandalam, I do have a definite inclination towards it.
Redundant romanticism of Mohiniyattam and Western audiences
Mohiniyattam is not a well known Indian dance form in France unlike Bharatanatyam. The Western audience does appreciate the moods of the Nayika in and the movements of Mohiniyattam. I arrange the shows in such a way that the right atmosphere is created through light, sound and audience-proximity. My ensuing project is one in which my gurus Leelamma and Kshemavathy will perform at a festival in Paris followed by a few recitals for which all three of us share the stage. Since it is a cultivated art form I don’t expect to draw a crowd to watch Mohiniyattam. But there will always be rasikas and connoisseurs in the audience.
Thematically repetitive Mohiniyattam versus free style contemporary dance creations
I enjoy both. Repeating the same items is interesting too. Vacillating between the classical and the contemporary, one can experience diverse spaces of actions and emotions. I keep on performing Mohiniyattam. In December, I will be performing at the Soorya Festival in Thiruvananthapuram. Meanwhile I am getting involved in thematic and experimental works. My last choreography, ‘Gopika,’ had five dancers and was performed in Paris in 2007.
Collaborating with Adoor Gopalakrishnan in ‘Dance of Enchantress’
I had this longing to make a film on Mohiniyattam for a long time. After watching the master pieces of Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Paris in the 1990’s, I became an admirer. The film on Mohiniyattam he directed primarily aims at experiencing the ‘dance’ rather than dissecting it intellectually. It juxtaposes the life of women on- and off-stage. The film is on Mohiniyattam and not on the individual styles of performance. Working with Adoor was an ingenious and insightful experience.