‘Solo recitals are becoming extinct’

Mohiniyattam by Kalamandalam Kshemavathy

Mohiniyattam by Kalamandalam Kshemavathy   | Photo Credit: S Mahinsha


Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, the doyenne of Mohiniyattam, talks about her remarkable journey as a dancer, choreographer and guru

The history of Mohiniyattam prior to its rebirth at Kerala Kalamandalam is susceptible to multiple and even contradictory interpretations. Once it was added to the curriculum of Kalamandalam, the guidance of surviving gurus in the field became vital in the codification and systemisation of whatever items they had not forgotten by then. The rejuvenation of Mohiniyattam was a historical achievement, the credit for which goes to Thottassery Chinnammu Amma and her disciple Kalamandalam Sathyabhama.

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy was groomed by these two great gurus. The conscientious tutelage she received from them is the secret of her success on stage and in the kalari (a training space for classical arts).

For those who completed their course in Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi in the 1960s, an appointment at their alma mater as dance instructor was a proud privilege. But not for Kshemavathy. Soon after her training, she stepped out of the institution to become a freelance dancer and teacher. Surprisingly, she was more inclined towards Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi in which she took advanced lessons from Chitra Viswesaran and Vempati Chinna Satyam respectively.

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

It was by accident that Kshemavathy turned to Mohiniyattam. She received an invitation to perform this lasya-laden dance for the Vallathol Centenary Celebrations held in New Delhi in 1979. The audience was spellbound by her piece on the Swathi Thirunal varnam, ‘Dani saamajendragaamini’. Its relatively slow pace, undulating-cum-curvilinear movements, delicate execution of hand gestures and leisurely steps coupled with vivid expression of sringara rasa in all its varied manifestations were a treat for the viewers. The feedback from the recital prompted Kshemavathy to recall the pieces she had learnt from her gurus at Kalamandalam long ago.

Inspired by the items she could recollect, Kshemavathy delved into the aesthetics of Mohiniyattam, which included enrichment of its angika with new sets of adavus and exploring the nuances of the literature through the visual syntax. Swathi’s ‘Sarasamrudupaada’ in raga Kamboji and the now much-acclaimed ‘Sumasayaka’ in raga Sudha Kaappi are the two varnams among others that bear imprints of her choreographic dexterity and on-stage virtuosity. Irayimman Thampi’s lullaby ‘Omanathingal kidavo’, set to raga Kurinji, is best suited to the codified constitution of Mohiniyattam. Kshemavathy has presented it on innumerable stages, winning immense adulation from the audience. Of all the items she herself composed, ‘Saptanayika’, based on Gitagovindam, is closest to her heart. From viraholkhandita (grief arising out of separation) to swadheenapathitha (readiness for dalliance), the dancer gets many opportunities to employ her versatility in acting and dancing. That’s why Kshemavathy found ‘Saptanayika’ bewitching.

Symmetry in the movements of the angopangapratyanga (face, body and limbs) facilitated by an unerring sense of music sets Kshemavathy apart from the rest of the Mohiniyattam dancers. An expressive face in harmony with the widely varying emotions of the nayika or the sakhi is capable of creating instantaneous impressions on the spectators. Kshemavathy’s charisma on stage owes a lot to this extraordinary combination.

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Well-conversant with the movement-vocabulary and the rhythmic-range of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, she is equally at ease in the presentation of traditional and innovative items in Mohiniyattam. In group choreography too, she has proven her talent. Outstanding dancers need not be born teachers and vice-versa. Kshemavathy is an exception. Several of her disciples are active on stage and in the kalari.

Humility is the hallmark of this celebrated dancer. She does not make any tall claims about her contributions to Mohiniyattam. With composure, she accepts whatever comes her way. Grievances and discontentment seldom find space in her life. Although Kshemavathy admits that tradition will not be a baggage for upcoming dancers, she also reminds them of their responsibility to safeguard the treasure left behind by their predecessors for posterity.

Kshemavathy is busy with rehearsals of Mohiniyattam performances to be presented as part of the forthcoming anniversary celebrations of her dance school, Kerala Kalamandir, based in Thrissur. Amidst her busy schedules, she graciously found time to have a crisp conversation on Mohiniyattam, its identity and contemporary concerns. Edited excerpts from the interview.

As someone who has, for decades, been performing and teaching Mohiniyattam, what, in your opinion, is the most striking transformation the dance form has undergone over a period of time?

For me, it is a perceptible switch by the dancers from dance-dictated items to theme-oriented ones that lay emphasis on abhinaya. Most of the dancers today are entranced by character presentations. Yet another change I have noticed is that the dancers do not have any reservations in adopting themes from other languages such as Tamil or Sanskrit. I must add that I have also composed a Tamil padam, ‘Sreechakravasa’, in the format of Mohiniyattam.

This leads me to the next question. Is there a proclivity on the part of present-day dancers to either delete or cut short the varnam, which, ironically, proves their mettle in a Mohiniyattam concert?

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

I feel sad about such an attitude. There is widespread concern among the dancers that the present-day audience does not have the patience to sit through a slow-paced varnam in Mohiniyattam. Aping new-generation Bharatanatyam dancers, some of the young Mohiniyattam dancers too are keen on substituting the traditional varnam with something unfamiliar and seemingly fresh. They don’t do jathiswarams either.

Of late, quite a few dancers opt for Sopanasangeetham to render a distinctive tone to their Mohiniyattam recitals. How do you respond to such a shift?

All my choreographic productions have so far been inextricably linked to Carnatic classical music. For a change, I have incorporated Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s Thathaari — ‘Anandaganapathi’ in my recital.

The sopana style of singing compels the dancer to stick to an unembellished execution of hand gestures, adavus and footsteps. There was no way I could enliven the same with theerumanams (concluding segment of a set of adavus/movements enriched by flourishes). Variations in adavaus and theerumanams, which I insist on, would look strange in an item performed to Sopanasangeetham. If some dancers prefer Sopana style of music to the prevalent Carnatic music, let them do that.

Many Mohiniyattam dancers have changed the colour of their sari, mostly opting for coloured borders and blouses. Since a well-defined aharya is one of the key-determinants of classicism, do you agree with these changes?

In the heyday of Chinnammu Amma teacher and Sathyabhama teacher, a gold-bordered white sari without the short-pleated fan and braided hair formed the aharya of Mohiniyattam. Over a period of time, the make-up, hair-style and the costumes have undergone many changes.

Once in a while, I have also been using non-traditional colours to give a different look to the costume. Tastes of the individual dancer need to be recognised. Yet, a certain uniformity in the dress code of Mohiniyattam would reinforce its identity. Young dancers look up to senior dancers as role models. Hence, the seniors in the field, I believe, have to exercise discretion.

Do you think the dominance of group choreography and presentation in Mohiniyattam interferes with its aesthetic finesse?

This is an unfortunate development in Mohiniyattam. I have choreographed quite a number of group items as part of different programmes I have been invited to. I cannot stay away from it. At the same time it is a sad fact that solo recitals are becoming extinct. Opportunities to present a varnam or padam adhering to the margam (highly codified in terms of techniques and expressions) have become few and far between. Within a decade from now, professional dancers in Mohiniyattam who are capable of presenting solo recitals, I am afraid, would be almost nil. I cannot think of any remedy to overcome this crisis.

Can contemporary themes find a comfortable space in Mohiniyattam?

I have experimented with contemporary topics in Mohiniyattam, but sparingly. The latest one is the visualisation of Prabha Varma’s poem Syamamadhavam. The language of Mohiniyattam calls for appropriate alterations when poems are added to its repertoire. To tell you the truth, bringing too many contemporary themes into Mohiniyattam can be incredibly boring.

You introduced a ghazal into the repertoire of Mohiniyattam. This genre of singing and its instrumental music, I feel, does not go well with the conceptual framework of Mohiniyattam. What prompted you to go in for such a decision?

I am an admirer of ghazals. It's my fondness for this form of music that encouraged me to choreograph one item in Mohiniyattam as an offbeat piece. Since its musical structure is closely known to me, I made a bold attempt to harmonise the movements and expressions of Mohiniyattam with the music concerned. However, I stopped with one.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 7:20:51 PM |

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