Danseuse Vinitha Nedungadi talks about giving new dimensions in Mohiniyattam

Dark dense clouds gather on the horizon and eventually fall as showers on the parched earth, clothing her in shades of green and creating life on the barren soil. Somewhere a peacock opens its tail and dances to the rhythm of the rain. No dancer has quite captured the romance of the rain as Mohiniyattam danseuse Vinitha Nedungadi has.

Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s ‘Karukare karmukil’ turned into an evocative portrayal of the rain when Vinitha choreographed it. In ‘Karukare…’, though Kavalam wrote about a farmer, Vinitha made it a conversation between the peacock and the dancer, with the former as the central character. “I had edited a small portion of the original poem, that too without Kavalam sir’s permission. Later when I wrote to him about this liberty I took, he was absolutely fine with it. And once he saw the performance, he commented, ‘Now the poem should be known like this’. That was a memorable moment in my career.”

Recently, Vinitha performed another production written by him, ‘Kasthurimaan’. “Just as the musk deer fails to recognise the origin of the fragrance, we overlook the qualities we have. I gave it a general perception, equating it with how we Indians tend to go after everything Western, ignoring our values.”

‘Omanathingal kidavo’ was the first poem choreographed by her for a programme at her son’s playschool. It was a huge success and even now, nearly 20 years after its debut, it is loved by the audience.

“There is that moment when I, my dance and the audience become one… I dance to live that moment….” And each performance of Vinitha Nedungadi’s is another step to recreate those moments. This Mohiniyattam danseuse has enriched the repertoire with not just her recitals, but also with her outstanding choreography that blurs literature, music and dance. Characters and contexts are painted in vivid shades when Vinitha interprets them in her dance vocabulary.

Her affair with the written word is not surprising, as she grew up “devouring books”. Daughter of the late P. Narendranath, celebrated children’s writer, Vinitha shared a special bond with books right from her childhood. “On our birthdays, instead of new clothes, achan used to gift us books. Whenever I read something, unknowingly the visuals also come to my mind. So when I listen to verses or lyrics, unconsciously I try to work on the subtext of a poem,” she explains.

However, learning dance from the age of five did not inspire her to become a dancer. “But, once, I sat through a Bharatanatyam recital by Chitra Visweswaran, things changed. It was a performance that made me introspect. I felt I was born to dance and dropped my studies for ICWA.”

She began anew under Kalamandalam Kshemavathy.

“I chose Mohiniyattam because it is our own dance form. I started with Bharatanatyam lessons, as per her suggestion. Once Mohiniyattam classes started, I got so involved that I myself was surprised with the changes that came over me as a dancer,” she reminisces.

She didn’t give too many solo performances, because “stages were few in those days”.

Thus choreography became her forte. Edassery Govindan Nair’s ‘Poothapaattu’, G. Sankara Kurup’s translation of Tagore’s Geetanjali and Poothanamoksham… found new dimensions and perspectives in Vinitha’s choreography.

So, was she dissuaded at any point? “Never! Kshemavathy teacher has told me that if I have the answer to why I am doing this, then I can go ahead. I believe Mohiniyattam is still evolving. It had its rebirth in 1932 and has reached only its adolescence. What I try to portray is the lasya in Mohiniyattam. It is a dance based on dwibhangi and athibhangi, with circular/spiral movements and calls for controlled acting.” Her contemporaries didn’t discourage her either. But she is unhappy with those dancers who “believe that whatever they perform on stage wearing a Mohiniyattam costume is Mohiniyattam.”

For Vinitha, it is the enchantment with the dance form of Mohiniyattam that makes her in step with its movements and music.

Waxing lyrical about verses

‘Poothapaattu’ was a challenging work, she says. “Roudra bhava was rarely presented in Mohiniyattam then. It took three years for me to convince myself and others to stage it. Mundoor Sethumadhavan sir supported me a lot, especially in adapting the rural text of the poem into Mohiniyattam. When I staged it in Delhi, Edassery’s son E. Madhavan, who was in the audience, told me later we had rejuvenated his father’s cultural legacy through the performance.”

In ‘Varshamohini’ she portrayed the navarasas of the rain using only instrumental music to support the dance. ‘Geethanjali’ had the sringara bhakti in Tagore’s Geethanjali elevated to a new plane. ‘Poothanamoksham’ reinterpreted the character Poothana, generally conceived as an ogre. “I wondered why of all the demons who were sent by Kamsa to kill Krishna only Poothana got salvation. I stressed on her motherhood, her remorse on killing a child and readiness to get herself killed at the hands of Krishna. I incorporated eight lines from Poothanamoksham Kathakali and didn’t use any mudra showing Kamsa or Krishna in the work.”

On the same bandwidth

Vinitha acknowledges her husband, Raghuthaman Nedungadi’s support. Raghu is the son of Kathakali musician Kottakkal Vasu Nedungadi, who is Vinitha’s grandmother’s brother. “He has a sound knowledge of music and has even written a few lyrics. One among them is Anandaganapathy which I’ve performed on many stages.” Vishnu R. Nedungadi, an engineering student, is their son. Vinitha runs a dance school, P. Narendranath Memorial Sree Vidya Academy in Palakkad.

Costume change

Instead of the pleated Kerala sari, Vinitha designed a pyjama-like attire, with pleats. “When Thankamani teacher (the first student of Mohiniyattam at Kalamandalam) made her debut, women in Kerala used to wear the sleeveless blouse (rouka). But she refused to perform in that attire. Then Vallathol suggested that she wear the women’s costume in Kathakali. Years later, the dance got the costume as we know it now – cream pleated sari and blouse with zari border. I found that since the sari reaches till the ankle, the movements of the feet are not visible to the audience. That was why I wear the pyjama like dress with pleats. This attire helps me connect with the audience,” Vinitha explains.