When two generations of performers, who revere the same classical values and practise with the same passion, come together, it is truly the meeting of artistic minds. In this case, there’s a special bond that makes the meeting special -- they are mother-daughter and guru-sishya. Bharati Shivaji and Vijayalakshmi.
The mother-daughter pair ardently advocate Mohiniyattom, the feminine classical dance form which has its roots in Kerala,. And the daughter bears a slight resemblance to her mother. But the similarities stop there. If Bharati is soft spoken and subdued, Vijayalakshmi is fiery and outspoken. If the mother still bows to tradition, the daughter wants to test waters and lend a new contemporary idiom to the dance.
As clichéd as it may sound, Bharati is synonymous with Mohiniyattom today. For four decades, she has overcome odds to create a separate and distinct artistic space for a dance form which had lost its sheen in its home State. “I think this was because this delicate and feminine art form found itself struggling to survive among the ‘chauvinistic’ Kathakali and Koodiyattom traditions,” says Bharati, whose classical journey began with Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music (her mother is veteran Carnatic vocalist K. Sankari).
The Delhi-based Bharati was visiting the city to watch Vijayalakshmi present a lec-dem at ‘Samavesham 2011,’ a seminar on Mohiniyattom organised by The Aseema Trust with Lasyatarangini and Kalavartha. Vijayalakshmi’s theme ‘Techniques and New Dimensions in Mohiniyattom’ not only touched upon historical facts – the first ever mention of this art form goes back to the early 17 century – but also the art’s contemporary relevance.
In fact, Vijayalakshmi belongs to a generation which believes in experimenting and pushing its envelope to see how the dance form can find a modern appeal. Interpreting Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ and Sri Ram Charit Manas through the graceful movements of Mohiniyattom are some bold attempts by Vijayalakshmi.
Does the mother approve? Smiles Bharati, “I was aghast when she first told me about her idea. But then, I believe each artist has to choose her own path. Once I saw what she had choreographed, I was happy to go along. Of course, the icing was the fact that we performed it at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Conservatory theatre in St. Petersburg, where Tchaikovsky himself studied. We have completed 40 shows and still counting.”
She muses, “If such endeavours will take the dance to different places and help promote and preserve it, why not? I am a purist but I also believe that for any art to thrive, it cannot stagnate. It has to be adapted to suit changing tastes. What Vijayalakshmi is doing is just that… making it work at various levels, so that it is better appreciated and generates interest among the young.”
Of course, innovation is not new to Bharati, who has lent a literary twist by performing to the verses of Malayalam poets Vallathol, besides popularising the compositions of Irayaman Thampi and Swati Tirunal. “You see, traditionally, the format of Mohini Natanam, as the dance form was referred to those days, was an offshoot of the kutcheri padhati set by the Thanjavur Quartet. So to break the art free from that and create a new identity for it was quite daunting and, at times exasperating. It was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s vision that gave me the impetus to pull on and work towards my goal,” says the Padma Sri awardee.
Today, thanks to Bharati’s perseverance and passion, Mohiniyattom is counted as one of the important classical dance forms. Taking the art to a new generation is Bharati’s Delhi-based Center for Mohiniyattam and of course her disciples including daughter Vijayalakshmi and her grand-daughter Nayantara. “When I took up this project four decades ago, my aim was to establish Mohiniyattom as a mainstream dance form. Today, I feel it is in safe hands,” she signs off even as she patiently strikes graceful poses with Vijayalakshmi for the camera.