Kalamandalam Sugandhi has enriched Mohiniyattom with her contributions to its theory and practice.

Way back in the sixties it was unimaginable for a girl from the Gaudasaraswat community to get trained in a dance form like Mohiniyattom, which still carried a kind of stigma in the middle class milieu of those times. Braving all odds, Sugandhi, who hails from Thuravoor village of Alappuzha district, enrolled at Kerala Kalamandalam. She soon became the beloved disciple of Kalamandalam Satyabhama, the doyenne of Mohiniyattom, Bharatanatyam maestro A.R.R. Bhaskar, and Kuchipudi expert, Kalamandalam Chandrika Menon.

At the age of seven, Sugandhi began learning Bharatanatyam from Sathidevi, a product of R.L.V. College of Fine Arts, Thripunitura. Almost two years later, she came under the tutelage of Palluruthy Surendranath who was well versed in Bharatanatyam and folk dances too. Initially, Sugandhi’s father was a little upset to see his daughter’s deep interest in dance. But after a while, his misgivings disappeared and he started supporting her interest in dance. In 1962, she stood first in the Bharatanatyam competition at the Kerala State schools youth festival.

Sugandhi remembers with pride and gratitude the encouragement of Guru Gopinath, Tripunithura Madhava Menon and Kavalam Narayana Panickar that led her to Kerala Kalamandalam where Vallathol had revived the rich lasya heritage of Mohiniyattom, despite the criticism from different quarters.

At Kalamandalam, Sugandhi grasped the essential techniques of Mohiniyattom, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. In her alma mater, she had the privilege of winning the admiration of great connoisseurs such as Dr. K.N. Pisharody and M.K.K. Nayar. Thanks to the magnanimity of the latter, Sugandhi was appointed teacher of Mohiniyattom at the FACT Fine Arts School immediately after completion of her course of study at Kalamandalam. Deeply moved by the grace and expressional density of Sugandhi’s recitals, M.K.K. Nair eulogised her in public as “Sugandha Mohini”, a title the dancer holds dear to her heart till date.

It was in 1969 that the faculty of Mohiniyattom at Kalamandalam brought in a decisive reformation in the coiffure of this dance tradition. Influenced probably by the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, the style of tying up the hair like a bun on the side of the head, technically called ‘konda’, was first experimented on Sugandhi. In the newly designed aharya, she performed Swati Tirunal’s varnam ‘Daani saamajendra gaamini’ in raga Thodi.

A year before, she was involved in the presentation of two noted padams of Swati Tirunal – ‘Panimathi Mukhi’ and ‘Tharuni Njaan’ in ragas Ahari and Dwijavanthi respectively, at Kalamandalam. By that time, over 30 adavus had been systematised at the institution, thereby buttressing the identity of the dance form.

Sugandhi could effectively employ some of the key adavus in the items she staged. Endowed with an elegant figure and a vivacious nature, her performance enthralled the audience.

Once she became a teacher, Sugandhi started thinking about the meaning of the items in the repertoire of Mohiniyattom. Her mother, Anandi, herself a poet and expert on Konkan literature, had already inculcated a love for poems and lyrics in her daughter. The sub-texts of the lyrics were a revelation to Sugandhi who made an earnest effort to internalise the semantics of the pallavi, anupallavi and the charanams in her recitals so that the ‘chaturvidhabhinaya’ (the four fold concept of acting – angika, vachika, aharya and satwika) attained a rare profundity. In tune with her conceptualisation of text and performance, Sugandhi has choreographed a good deal of varnams, padams and group items.

Thirst for knowledge

The thirst for knowledge guided Sugandhi to the treasures of sage Bharata’s Natya Shastra. For a discerning analysis of the tenets of ‘kaisikivritti’ (the comprehensive features of lasya) in it, she sought authoritative directions from Padma Subrahmanyam.

Similarly ‘Abhinayadarpana’ and ‘Balarama Bharatam’ caught her attention. ‘“Kaisikivritti’ and ‘satwikavritti’ are the two pillars of Mohiniyattom. The movements and expressions of a Mohiniyattom dancer should ideally be like the spontaneous flow of a river. Abrupt interruptions and frequent jerks mar the very essence of the dance,” believes Sugandhi.

She has spent much of her time in recent years to provide a nomenclature to the study material of Mohiniyattom based on her readings of the ancient texts on natya, nritta and music. ‘Gajakreeditham’ (play of the elephant), ‘Thalapushpaputam’ (flower in full bloom) and ‘Bhujangathraastitham’ (serpent posture) are a few of the karanas Sugandhi added to the stylistic palette of Mohiniyattom. In her view, an exemplary recital should combine the physical and the intellectual without one overpowering the other.

Stylistic diversity

Of all the accomplished Mohiniyattom dancers, Sugandhi’s receptiveness to stylistic diversity is pretty amazing. Kalyanikutty Amma’s compositions have had a tremendous impact on the performance manual of Sugandhi. Her belated acknowledgement of Kavalam Narayana Panickar’s indigenous vision of Mohiniyattom is further proof of her eclecticism. Sugandhi has performed items such as Ganapathi, Jeeva, Mukhachalam and Gangatatwam, all bearing the insignia of Kavalam.

Has she ever felt apprehensive about mixing up techniques of dance forms such as Mohiniyattom, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, all of which she has studied?

“By learning each of these dance forms, I have been able to realise in no small measure the insignificant similarities and substantial differences in practical terms. In Kuchipudi, I was fortunate to receive advanced training from the titan Vedantam Prahlada Sarma,” says Sungandhi.

More recently, she has turned her attention almost exclusively to items in Mohiniyattom that lay emphasis on acting.

“I have always been fond of padams. Nowadays, I am not comfortable with Thillanas and other items that demand adavus aplenty.” Her self-appraisal bordering on critical introspection deserves appreciation.

Sugandhi has won numerous awards at the State- and national-levels for her contributions to Mohiniyattom.

Of them, the Central Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 2004 and Senior Fellowship from the Ministry of HRD in 1990 need special mention.

The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy has, of late, selected her for its Fellowship.