Kalamandalam Sugandhi's students performed the Sopana style of Mohiniyattam, pioneered by Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

For want of a foolproof historical base, Mohiniyattam, the feminine lyrical dance of Kerala, has been struggling to reinforce its identity for centuries. Individual idioms of dancers in the field, often at odds with one another, have created scepticism among art scholars and aesthetes about the organic entity of the dance-form. Poet, lyricist and theatre-director Kavalam Narayana Panicker is one among those who has come down heavily on mainstream Mohiniyattam baani (discipline) that, many a time, unabashedly apes the craft and content of Bharatanatyam.

He has been pivotal in the efforts of dancers such as Bharati Sivaji and Kanak Rele to revisit the repertoire of Mohiniyattam by anchoring on Sopanana Sangeetam, the temple music tradition of Kerala.

Gradual acceptance

Hostility towards his approach and conceptualisation of Mohiniyattam by some of the well known dancers of the day is slowly giving way to cautious acknowledgement.

The Sopana style of Mohiniyattam, performed by a group of young dancers under the laudable guidance of Kalamandalam Sugandhi at Changampuzha Park in Edapally, as part of Navaratri celebrations, underpinned the changing attitude of dancers to the bold and innovative ideas of Kavalam.

He, in his brief inaugural address, joined issue with the usage of the terms concert or recital for a Mohiniyattam performance. To him, it can at best be called ‘Mohiniyatta Seva,' suggesting its link to a temple ritual. “Unless this eye-catching dance form is liberated from the clutches of Carnatic classical music, its identity is at stake,” he said. Kavalam noted with a sense of pride that his musical interpretations were finding favour with senior dancers like Sugandhi.

The performance began with the item ‘Rasaganapathi' in raga Kuntalavarali, Adi tala. The lyrics ‘Sakalarasapathe! Gunagananidhe' was an offering to Lord Ganapathi, through which the dancer unfolded the many different rasas (expressions). An ambience of devotion to the deity was pronounced in the dance and musical rendition. Mukhchaalam came next in ragamaalika and talamaalika. As a pure dance piece, the dancers displayed their skill in steps and movements corresponding to the chollus.

‘Gangatatwam,' the third item, was almost the equivalent of the traditional varnam. In raga Charukesi, Chembada tala, the piece was noted for the intensity of the lyrics, which was engrossing. As a result, the dancers performed with a high degree of involvement, especially in the portion of vinyasa (imaginative discourse) which dealt with the story of Bhageeradha's penance to bring the water of the Ganga to the Earth.

The flowing Ganga, its swift and overwhelming current contained by Lord Siva on his tuft, and its calm cascade afterwards found visual expression by means of the mudras and the movements of the dancers.

The subsequent item, Niram, was akin to a padam. Written by Kavalam and composed by B. Sasikumar in ragamaalika and Kumbha tala (20 beats), Niram unveiled Bhagawathi in myriad hues. ‘Anthivaarna niramozhukave' appealed to the beholders as the dignified grace of simple lyricism. From the akaralapana of raga Sankarabharanam, it passed through different segments each in ragas Behag, Atana, Anandabhairavi, Malayamaarutham, and Madhyamavathi. Sasikumar's sense of discretion and knowledge of the visuals is evident in the selection of ragas. Kumbha taalam of 20 beats provided an assorted tonal flavour to the lines sung.

The most striking of the items was Gandhari, another of Kavalam's lyrics. Sulini Vijay encapsulated the story of Gandhari by touching upon the key dramatic moments with fluent hand gestures and expressions.

Gandhari's story

Gandhari's dreams of marriage, her initial shock when she discovers her fiancée, Dhritharashtra, is blind, and her resolve to deprive herself of vision found excellent expression when Sulini made optimum use of her angopangas (mainly limbs and eyes).

‘Jeeva' in Marma tala, an item parallel to the conventional thillana, was a fitting finale to the Mohiniyatta Seva.

In the absence of the usual nayika-nayaka dialogues, Seva turned out to be an exclusive offering to the deity of the temple. One wonders whether the choreographer intended the same.

With akaaraalapanam preceding the major items and the vaytharis (pnemonics) of the chenda/edayakka widely employed, the performance stood out for its aesthetics. Yet a discerning rasika would notice a mono-tone in the musical renditions of Satish Changancherry, and Anil Kumar Alappuzha. Despite their confident singing, slips in sruti were conspicuous at times.

Among accompanying artistes, Vivek Shenoy's flute deserves special mention for he drew the contours of each raga, elevating the dancers' performances. The gifted Tripunithura Krishna Das could have had a little more space in the compositions to present his artistic ingenuity. Sugandhi has proved her expertise in choreography although some of her disciples are still to realise the magic of synchronising movements with music.