Devoted to art

Nirmala Panicker Photo: K.K.Najeeb   | Photo Credit: K.K.Najeeb

In the absence of a well-defined structure, Mohiniyattam had earned qualifiers like ‘poor cousin of Bharatanatyam,' ‘an off-shoot of Kathakali' and so on during the 60s and the 70s. This had motivated quite a few dancers to make serious attempts to provide the dance form with an identity indigenous to Kerala. Among them Nirmala Panicker's contribution has been commendable. It was her dedication to ferreting out connecting links of the dance form to the near-extinct female dance traditions of Kerala that helped her enrich Mohiniyattam with a slew of mudras, adavus, abhinaya techniques, and, to cap it all, a well-knit methodology of teaching. For this, she delved deep into ancient treatises such as ‘Silapathikaram,' ‘Manimekhala,' ‘Dasakumaracharitam,' ‘Natyasastra' and ‘Hasthalakshanadeepika.' The books authored by her (‘Hand Gestures of Hasthalakshanadeepika in Mohiniyattam', ‘Mohiniyattam – Acting Manual and Mudras' and ‘Nangiarkoothu') are testimony to her research over the last three decades. Nirmala is totally engaged in bringing up a group of young talents in the Mohiniyattam kalari of her institution Natanakaisiki, a branch of her husband, G. Venu's Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda, in the Gurukula pattern. At a time when dance festivals are dime a dozen, Nirmala can boast of a dance festival that is exclusively devoted to Mohiniyattam, an annual event organised by Natanakaisiki.

Amidst hectic preparations for the festival, scheduled for the last week of this month, Nirmala spoke to FridayReview about her experiences as dancer, scholar and teacher . Excerpts:

Beginning as a Bharatanatyam student

My native place Piravam didn't have any facilities for learning any art during my childhood. Since I was advised to exercise to deal with some health problems during my childhood days , my parents took me to Saraswathy teacher, a disciple of the acclaimed guru Shadow Gopinath. She taught me many folk dances, among which I still remember ‘Kaliyamardanam.' I dropped my plans to learn music when I realised dance was my forte. Soon after completing class ten, I joined RLV Fine Arts Academy, Thripunithura, where I was groomed as a Bharatanatyam dancer by Kalakshetra Vilasini and RLV Radhamani.

Into the world of Mohiniyattam

I came to know about Mohiniyattam only after completing the first year at RLV. The institution didn't offer a course in this dance form. But I heard about Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma in Thripunithura whose husband, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Nair, the renowned Kathakali maestro, was already a faculty member of Kathakali with the RLV. I started training under her during my student days at RLV. That was a turning point in my life. She was more than a teacher. Endowed with rare literary taste, she was also gifted with exceptional ability for research. What I am today could be attributed to her influence only.

In Lawrence School

In 1974, I joined Lawrence School, Lovedale, as a dance teacher. The vast library helped me to delve deep into the history of dance in Kerala. Treatises belonging to the Sangham period shed light on this. Perhaps the efforts to link Mohiniyattam to Thiruvathirakali and Nangiarkoothu were a sequel to this research. During summer vacations, I familiarised myself with the Kalamandalam style of Mohiniyattam by training under Sathyabhama teacher. While Kalyanikutty Amma teacher's method was more systematic, the Kalamandalam methodology laid more emphasis on learning padams, varnams ... I could successfully blend the two in evolving a style of my own. While searching for the roots of Mohiniyattam, I had the privilege of training under Thiruvathirakali exponents Bhanu Asan, Lakshmikutty Amma and Savithri Brahmani Amma.


I happened to go through an article on Mohiniyattam in a Malayalam newspaper while in Lovedale. The writer had touched upon Nangiarkoothu, a dance theatre for women. Naturally, my pursuit turned towards this art form, the practitioners of which were very few. However, I could locate some of them at Kumaranellur, Irinjalakuda and Thrissur. Perhaps what appeared as providential was my marriage to G. Venu who was by then associated with Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. Also, I was lucky to get a copy of the Attaprakaram of Nangiarkoothu from Gopi Nambiar. Madhava Chakyar and his cousin Parameswara Chakyar helped me in interpreting the text. They opened a treasure trove of mudras employed in this art form that could be traced to the ‘Hasthalakshanadeepika.' My bilingual book ‘Hand Gestures of Hasthalakshanadeepika in Mohiniyattam' is a documentation of these findings.


I must mention Kumaran Asan's ‘Leela' and Kalidasa's ‘Kumara Sambhavam' that had received rave reviews. To this day, perhaps, I am the only choreographer who could rejuvenate items like Easal, Poli, Kurathy and Chandanam of Mohiniyattam that had become extinct . Also, I have held workshops in London, Zurich, Japan, Mozambique, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands and Sweden. I am proud that my Mohiniyatta Kalari has been approved by the South Zone Cultural Centre of the Ministry of Culture. I was awarded Senior Fellowship by the Department of Culture twice and received Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Award in 2003.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2021 2:49:41 PM |

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