The debate over Mohiniyattam’s music

Neena Prasad   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The true identity of Mohiniyattam prior to its resurrection at Kerala Kalamandalam by its founder, poet-laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, has been a topic of endless debates and discussions, most of it centred around the dance form’s stylistic features and repertoire. But its music, both vocal and instrumental, has never got the attention it deserved. It was Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, poet, playwright and renowned theatre director, who spoke up against the musical practices prevalent in Mohiniyattam from the days of Maharaja Swati Tirunal, pointing out what he called the glaring discrepancies between the movements and the music.

Kavalam’s criticism was, for the most part, directed towards the musical system of Mohiniyattam followed at Kalamandalam. Broadly based on the classical music format, the choreography of all the pieces in this lasya dance tradition corresponds to the ragas, talas and tempos of Carnatic music.

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar   | Photo Credit: MAHINSHA S

For and against

Says Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, a flagbearer of the Kalamandalam School of Mohiniyattam, “I am perfectly at ease with the adavus learnt at Kalamandalam; they are in harmony with the Carnatic system prescribed for Mohiniyattam by the then maestros. Since I am conversant with that system, I have never been inclined to effect any substantial changes to it in my own choreographies. I have danced ‘Thathaari’ and ‘Jeeva’, the two distinctive pieces by Kavalam set to the Sopana style of music — the ragas and talas he suggests are best suited to padams.”

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy

Kalamandalam Kshemavathy   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

According to well-known dancer Neena Prasad, “If Mohiniyattam is not to be branded as a regional dance form, its music should be systematised and diverse. The structure of Carnatic music fulfills these twin objectives. When it comes to the varnam in Mohiniyattam, the framework of Carnatic music assures enough space for the vocalist to improvise in the first half, while in the latter half, he/she can close in on the nayika-bhavas.

Changanassery Madhavan Namboodiri, who has been the singer for Neena’s performances for many years, doesn’t think it inappropriate to choose Carnatic music for Mohiniyattam. “The vocal music for Kathakali and Bharatanatyam is directly influenced by Carnatic music. So why can’t it be used for Mohiniyattam as well? Of course, the vocalist has to exercise prudence in selecting the ragas and tempos, and applying the brigas. The niraval should not disregard the meaning of the lyrics,” she says.

When Kavalam argued in favour of Sopana Sangeetham (sung traditionally in temples), native Mohiniyattam dancers did not heed his suggestion. However, two dancers from outside the State, Bharati Shivaji and Kanak Rele, supported him unreservedly.

“It was Kavalam who introduced me to the music of Njeralath Rama Poduval,” says Bharati. “I was instantly carried away by his singing of the Ashtapadi, ‘Chandanacharchitha’, in raga Pantuvarali. There was something unique about it. Later, I heard Janardanan Nedungadi sing various Ashtapadis at the Guruvayur temple. I thought that the undulating gamakas of Sopana Sangeetham were most apposite to my aesthetic vision and presentation of Mohiniyattam.”

Bhava-filled rendition

Gireesan, who graduated in Kathakali vocal music from Kalamandalam, has been singing for Kanak Rele’s Mohiniyattam performances. “The intensive training in vocal music has helped me sing in line with the principles of Bhavasangeetham (expressional music) propounded by Kavalam sir. I found the vaythaaris (vocal rendition of the syllables in rhythmic patterns) of the Kerala percussion, such as chenda, maddalam and edakka, that he had interpolated into his compositions, to be very much in harmony with the gamakas. He insisted on avoiding the brigas and fast tempos in Mohiniyattam compositions. His explanation of the meaning of the lyrics in relation to the bhavas has enriched my knowledge of our musical heritage.”

Methil Devika

Methil Devika   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Methil Devika, a famous Mohiniyattam dancer, says that a blend of Carnatic music and the ‘deshi’ tradition of Sopana Sangeetham has helped her recitals retain an indigenous fragrance. “For almost all the items I perform, except the Varnam, I use the Sopana style of music and Kerala’s percussion instruments such as maddalam, edakka and mizhavu. The dancer’s discretion is what matters here. A piece choreographed in 16 beats could be stretched to 32 beats, similar to the execution of a vilambakaala padam (slow tempo padam) in Kathakali. Dikshitar’s Navavarana kritis do not call for any alterations in the raga-tala structure. I have often felt that Mohiniyattam’s stature cannot be raised simply by blindly resorting to ‘deshi’ practices in music,” says Devika.

Though these diverse approaches may have lent colour to the dance form’s music, Mohiniyattam artistes still seem to be in a quandary about which style to choose. Those who opt for Carnatic music are criticised by purists, while dancers using Sopana Sangeetham will have to think of ways to save their choreographies from becoming tedious because of the repetition of musical phrases, talas, vaythaaris and tempos.

The author is a critic and connoisseur of traditional artforms of Kerala.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 6:17:03 AM |

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