Mohiniyattam exponent Kanak Rele’s latest book, Me and My Mohini Attam, is both a biography and an autobiography. While the autobiographical sketches emerge from her single-minded pursuit to establish the first dance training institution in India affiliated to a university, the biographical narrations are by her niece, Radha Khambati.
The 17 chapters of the book unveil many interesting facets of her life and career that do not find a mention in her previous works. The chapter ‘Parichaya’ talks about her strong bond with dance. “In the long life of mine, a life that I have lived and hugged and adored, there is one word that comes through as a thread that binds all the runaway strands into one graceful totality, dance,” writes Kanak. As you finish reading the 331 pages of the book, you are truly in awe of her passion for dance, especially Mohiniyattam.
The first seven chapters serve as a synopsis of Kanak’s life, right from her birth in 1937 to parents Shivdas and Madhuri. One gets a glimpse of Kanak’s days as a child in Santiniketan. “I was brought up in the lap of Nature and those experiences I cannot forget”. She was impressed by Tagore’s nationalistic outlook and zeal for Indian culture. But she had to unwillingly leave the institution when World War II started. Back home, she began to train in dance.
Her meeting the great dancer Uday Shankar was accidental. He was surprised to know that the young Kanak was already learning Kathakali from Raghavan Nair. She later came under the tutelage of guru Panchali Karunakara Panikkar.
The Gujarat-born Kanak had to cross insurmountable barriers once she was initiated into the male-dominated world of Kathakali. Even as the training was in progress, a nagging pain in her leg at the age of ten was diagnosed as polio. But she overcame it with her dedicated dance practice. Later, if she could use dance as therapy for physically challenged children (chapter 11), the inspiration came from her strong footing in Kathakali.
A few chapters in the book focus on significant events in her life such as the death of her father and her mother’s remarriage, pressure from her family to become a doctor, marrying Yatin Rele, studying International Law at Manchester University with specialisation in Civil Aviation and being offered a lucrative job by JRD Tata in his airlines, Yatin’s battle against a serious illness, the birth of her son, her foray into Mohiniyattam under the guidance of P.N. Rajalakshmi of Kalamandalam, and her visits to Kerala for a film on the exponents of the art form.
Kanak faced a new set of challenges when she decided to establish the Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalay in Mumbai. The book carries a vivid description about it.
Nalanda Dance Academy, now known as Nalanda Dance Research Centre, came into existence in 1967. Her penchant for both the theoretical and practical aspects of dance study made her introduce a degree course in classical dance.
Her dogged pursuit resulted in Nalanda Dance Research Centre further offering undergraduate, post-graduate and Ph.D degrees affiliated to the Bombay University.
Creating a record
Kanak herself created a record by earning her Ph.D in dance, the first in India, in 1977. Her doctoral thesis was titled, ‘Mohini Attam: All aspects and Spheres of Influence’.
But a group of detractors claimed that her Ph.D was fake. Doordarshan that had planned to feature her on the ‘Prathibha ani Pratima’ programme retracted due to this vicious campaign. But Kapila Vatsyayan, who was her research guide, intervened and the programme was cleared for telecast. The group staged a protest outside the Doordarshan Kendra, Mumbai, on the day of the live telecast. The protestors even sent an anonymous letter to the Vice Chancellor, accusing Kanak of having relationships with influential personalities, but he burnt it down saying, “This is what this filth deserves”.
Despite all this, Kanak remained unfazed, and continued exploring the art form. Her study of body kinetics of Mohiniyattam supported by sketches that were seen in her previous books are part of this book too. The delineation of nava rasas bear eloquent testimony to her abhinaya prowess.
Her interactions with renowned theatre exponent and poet Kavalam Narayana Panicker, that motivated her to lend an indigenous flavour to Mohiniyattam, is explained lucidly. Sopana Sangeetham and talas introduced as suggested by Narayana Panicker helped Mohiniyattam shed the ‘poor cousin of Bharatanatyam’ tag. She earned rave reviews for her choreography of his compositions.
Tributes by scholars, the staff of Nalanda, and her students towards the end throw much light on her contributions. But the book could have been more concise.
The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.