Matriarch of Mohiniyattam

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama.   | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

The credit for reviving Mohiniyattam, the lasya-rich dance form of Kerala origin, could rightly be accredited imputed to Vallathol. His pioneering efforts in 1932 to open the dance course in Kerala Kalamandalam, including the quest manhunt for a student, have few parallels in the cultural history of Kerala. But the course had to be discontinued because of the thanks to paucity of teachers in 1940. It was revived again in 1950 under Thottassery Chinnammu Amma. The lone survivor of this unbroken tradition is Kalamandalam Sathyabhama. She has been rightly described as the matriarch of Mohiniyattaom for her epochal contributions that accorded the dance form a well-knit structure for the first time. Interestingly, her career epitomiszes the preserving attempts of Kalamandalam to preserve and, at the same time, for reinvent a dance form that was lost to Kerala several decades ago. An acclaimed choreographer and widely venerated guru, she also proved her administrative skill as the first woman lady vice-principal and later the Principal of her alma mater. Her disciples, including foreigners, are a legion and they have fanned out across the world as torch-bearers of the much coveted Kalamandalam sailee (school) of Mohiniyattam.

In a recent interview, the septuagenarian danseuse spoke about the painstaking efforts taken during her tenure to reconstruct the dance form from a scratch. Excerpts:

Initial steps

I am a native of Shornur. My father, Krishnan Nair, was a businessman and mother, Ammini Amma, a housewife. Shornur is on the northern side of Bharathapuzha and even as a child I had heard about Kerala Kalamandalam on the southern bank of the river. The passion for dance took me to Kalamandalam to be trained in Bharatanatyam under the doyens Kalamandalam Achuta Warrier and Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Warrier. This was a private arrangement and I had to pay fees for my classes. Only after completing eighth standard in the Shornur high school, was I enrolled as a regular student in the dance class. That was in 1949 at the age of 12.

The formative years

My guru in Mohiniyattam, Thottassery Chinnammu Amma, was already a staff member of Kalamandalam. She was like a mother to us. She engaged us only after the Bharatanatyam classes. She taught us a few adavus, cholkettu, jathiswarams in Chenchurutty and Todi. She had a broken memory about the much-talked-about Todi composition ‘Daani saamajendra gamin' of Swati Tirunal. As students we presented both Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam in the Kalamandalam programmes. But the repertoire of the latter was not rich.

Persevering efforts

I was appointed as an additional teacher in the dance department in 1957. The first varnam to be choreographed in Kalamandalam was none other than the above mentioned one in Todi. But it posed a slew of problems. Even the sahithya was not available in full. We visited an old Mohiniyattam danseuse Kunchukutti Amma of Neluuvai for more details but she could not recapitulate anything worthwhile. Here, I must mention the valuable contributions of all the scholars in Kalamandalam those days including my husband, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, Killimangalam Vasudevan Namboothiripad, Paimkulam Rama Chakyar, Unnikrishnan Elayath and so on. It was Vasudevan Namboothiripad who procured the sahithya. As for the delineation of Cupid's arrows and similar feats, Rama Chakyar's suggestions were precious. Elayath Master interpreted the Sanskrit verses. As adavus esoteric to Mohiniyattam were few, I took pains to formulate around 35 of them. My job was intricate as none of them were to have any resemblance to Bharatanatyam or Kathakali. I must say that the female veshams of Kathakali, which I had learnt were useful for the improvisations. Luckily , I was sent to Kalamandalam Kalayanikutty Amma in Thripunithura for a refresher course. This was beneficial. And finally when the varnam was fully choreographed, it won laurels from all quarters.

More choreographies

This was a shot in the arm that inspired me to venture into choreography. ‘Manasime paritapam' (Sankarabharanam), ‘Sumasayaka' (Kapi) and ‘Ahanta vanchitaham' (Dhanyasi) followed. As for the padams, ‘Pannagendra sayana' (ragamalika), ‘Panimathi mukhi bala' (Aahari), ‘Tharuni njaan enthu cheyvu' (Dwijavanthi), ‘Kanthanodu chennu melle' (Neelambari), ‘Viditham the nisavrutham' (Suruti), ‘Karuna cheyvanenthu thaamasam' (Ragamalika), ‘Kantha thava pizha njaan' (Atana), ‘Elathalir sayane' (Pumnnagavarali) and ‘Kanakamayamaayidum' (Huseni) and so on enriched the repertoire of the dance form.


The costume and jewellery of Mohiniyattam that we see today are immortal contributions of Kalamandalam. I had a crop of creative students during those formative years who were also instrumental for the innovations. I remember how the hairstyle of ‘Kondakettu' was first experimented on Sugandhy. Leelamma was resourceful in further enriching the repertoire. But what makes me sad today is that ungraceful movements have crept into the dance form for the sake of innovation. This is reprehensible.

Still in contact with Kalamandalam

I am still serving my alma mater in the capacity of examiner for the university examinations of the post-graduate course. My daughter, Lathika, is on the rolls of Kalamandalam. While interacting with students I have understood that the poor employment prospects of the dance course is a chief cause of worry. This has to be tackled by the government. My book on the dance form will be completed soon.


Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured me with their award in 1976. This was followed by the award from Sangeet Nataka Akademi, Delhi. I was the first recipient of the Nruthya Natya Puraskaram of the Kerala Government in 2005. Kerala Kalamandalam also honoured me with its award in 1988.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 1:47:23 PM |

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