It is golden jubilee for Kshemavathy, doyenne of Mohiniyattom.

When girls her age walked backed from school, one little girl did it with a skip, hop and a dance, without realising that she would soon dance her way into the hearts of rasikas the world over. The six year old girl would spontaneously break into a dance in response to any music that she heard. She would imitate what she had seen on stage or screen.

Dance gave her joy and all that she dreamt of was, “I will be a famous dancer one day”. Today, as she celebrates the golden jubilee of her dancing years, she looks back with happiness at the fulfilment of her childhood dream. She is the doyenne of Mohiniyattom and a recipient of Padma Sri, Kalamandalam Kshemavathy.

Her training in the form began early. “My dancing on the way back after watching performances or movies was noticed by a lady standing in the doorway of her house. She called out to me and agreed to teach me. I enjoyed my stint with her, as she taught me to dance to popular numbers,” says Kshemavathy

Seeing her continued fascination and passion for dance, her parents decided to send her to Kalamandalam, “I went for the audition, where I performed the ‘Kaliyamardhana’ song, which was taught enthusiastically by my teacher. An elderly gentleman got up from his seat to put his hand on my head in blessing and said, ‘You will have a bright future in dance and I am enrolling you into my institution.’ The man was the great poet, Vallathol, founder of the legendary institution, Kalamandalam.”

Her formative years at Kalamandalam laid a strong foundation, equipping her with the basic grammar and technique of dance, essential for moulding her into a competent artist. Simultaneously, while her studies were going on, she was also a quiet witness to the renaissance, the revival and restructuring of the art form of Mohiniyattom that was taking place at Kalamandalam. The exciting environment full of discussions, debates and research triggered her creative juices, which surfaced later in her life when the need to choreograph songs arose.

She learnt all that was in vogue among traditional practitioners from her guru Chinnammu amma, the first teacher of Mohiniyattom. Later she came under the tutelage of guru Sathyabhama, who was largely responsible for bringing refinement to this dance form by codifying the techniques, formulating a concert repertoire and developing a unique costume and hair style after extensive research - to give a special stature to this dance of the enchantress. This opened Kshemavathy’s eyes to how tradition and creativity co-existed.

Mastering other styles

Her unabated passion brought her to Madras to learn Bharatanatyam from guru Muthuswamy Pillai, guru Adyar Lakshman and Chitra Visveswaran, and Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam. Gaining proficiency, she started giving programmes where she performed in all three styles on the same day, and was critically acclaimed for maintaining the distinct identity of each form. Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi gave her an award for Bharatanatyam.

She settled down after marriage in Thrissur, continuing to teach Mohiniyattom at Kerala Kalamandiram that she founded in 1994.

Her restless spirit continued to search for a way to reach out to a wider audience without diluting the classicism of the art form. This led to her choreographing the poem of poet Sugadhakumari, ‘Krishna Nee Enne Ariyille’ in 1978, which not only got her critical acclaim but also public acceptance. “This,” she says, “gave me the courage to work on new poems, but it is very important to choose only those songs or poems that will be suitable for the slow, languorous pace of this style. It should also have a strong emotion for communication and should be set to appropriate music. Then it will reache a wider audience who will respond wholeheartedly to the new work.”

She also chose to portray the male ethos and emotions, in yet another departure from women-centric subjects, which was the order of the day, by exploring the Kuchela story from Narayaneeyam with music by Kalamandalam Hyder Ali.

Her famous husband, film director Pavitran’s artistic taste influenced her deeply, and the outcome of this was her foray into an unchartered terrain in Mohiniyattom - dancing to an Urdu ghazal.

She says, “My husband made me listen to beautiful ghazals, explaining the nuances and meanings and over a period of 25 years, these had found their way into the core of my dance. I found the expressions of pain and pleasure in these compositions echoed in the sentiments of the ashtanaayikas. I adapted the ghazal, ‘Ab Raat Ki Tanhaai,’ from the album of Asha Bhonsle and Hariharan to convey the feelings through the medium of a classical form. The response was overwhelming.” She says with tears in her eyes, “But sadly, my husband, who was my inspiration, did not live to see this day.”

Accolades and awards have come her way including National Academy Award, Kerala Kalamandalam Award, Nritya Natya Puraskar and the Padma Sri in 2010. She has travelled widely in India and abroad giving performances and lecture-demonstrations.

Despite touching a milestone, as it is her golden jubilee year, she is not one to sit back in contentment. When I spoke about the suitability of the song, ‘Varugalamo Aiyya’ from Nandanar Charitam, her spontaneous abhinaya, to my rendering of the song, showed her quick understanding of the gist of the emotion. It is this creative spark, spontaneity, passion for dance and the desire to transmit her knowledge to the next generation, which has turned into reality her childhood dream of being a famous dancer.

Impressions

What some dancers have to say about Kalamandalam Kshemavathy:

“Kshemavathy's work reflects ease, grace and depth arising from her vast experience and deep engagement with Mohiniyattom,” says Vilasini Natyam exponent, Swapna Sundari.

“Kshemavathy is a wonderful dancer and a teacher, well known for Mohiniyattom. She is one of the leading and respected gurus on par with Kelu Babu, Birju Maharaj, M.K. Saroja and others,” says Bharatanatyam guru C.V. Chandrasekhar.

“She is an extremely gifted and sensitive dancer. She was always committed and eager to learn - a perfectionist, and very lyrical in her movement. Though she trained in different styles, she maintained the distinct identity of each. She is very self-effacing and a fine human being,” says dancer Chitra Visveswaran, who has also taught Bharatanatyam to Kshemavathy.

“If there is one word to sum up my guru, and I take the liberty to include all her other disciples, it is 'Mother'. Her unconditionality in today's conditioned world, makes her a rare gem,” says Sujatha Ramachandran, disciple.