DVD Review Dance

In search of the roots of Mohiniyattam

The cover of Nithya Kalyani. Photo: K.K. Najeeb   | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

History tells us that the revival of Mohiniyattam took place during the reign of Swati Tirunal (1829 – 1846). Information about the dance form during the pre-Swati period, however, has been sparse. Vinod Mankara’s hour-long documentary Nithya Kalyani ferrets out a wealth of information about the dance form from the sixth to 19th centuries. This he has achieved by interviewing historians and analysing historical documents and sculptural reliefs in numerous temples spread across South India.

Captivating visuals, supplemented by graphic narration, music and dance performances highlight Vinod’s experience in filmmaking.

Vinod delves into the pre-Swati period after describing the arrival of Devadasis in Kerala. He begins with their exodus after the decline of the Vijayanagar kingdom (1336 –1646) and the destruction of Hampi.

Vinod explains how the name Mohiniyattam appears for the first time in ‘Vyavaharamala’ (1709) authored by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri. It, however, gives no description of the dance form but only information about the remuneration of the artistes. Vinod anchors on the ‘Mathilakam’ documents to prove that Mohiniyattam dancers were brought to Thiruvananthapuram during the reign of Swati’s mother Gowri Lakshmi Bayi (1810– 1813). Again during the period of Gowri Parvathi Bayi (1815 – 1829) four Mohiniyattam dancers performed in the Natakasala of the palace. And, no doubt, during the period of the next ruler, Swati Tirunal, Mohiniyattam blossomed and his innumerable padams found enchanting expressions in the dance form.

Close-up of murals in the Kuthiramalika Palace provide enough proof of their presence in the Swati court.

The post-Swati era witnessed degeneration of the dance form as a result of which the dancers were once again left in the lurch.

Vinod’s quest for the roots of the dance form during the pre-Swati era commences with a scintillating recital by Methil Devika.

The Mohiniyattam trail

What seems to have led Vinod to visit more than 20 prominent temples in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, seems to be the absence of any convincing finger prints that the dance form had left in Kerala except in Chokkur (Kozhikode), Nedumbram (Palakkad), Trivikramangalam and Kazhakoottam (Thiruvananthapuram), which hardly give any cogent descriptions.

In this pursuit, he starts from the Thiruvadhikkai Siva temple in Gudallur. As he travels extensively to temples in the other states, one can identify the close resemblance of costumes, movements, coiffure, and even the demarcating features of cholkettu of the present day Mohiniyattam in the reliefs in the temples.

Admittedly, the clippings of the ‘Kaisiki Natakam’ at the Thirukkurunkudi Perumal temple in Tamil Nadu, a performance staged annually from 10th century, are research-worthy for the roots of Mohiniyattam. ‘Thithi’, a sushira vadya made of leather, had been recorded as a musical instrument used in Mohiniyattam recitals during the Swati period. The instrument appears in the murals of the Padmanabhapuram Palace too. A document pertaining to the remuneration paid to one Karunakaran who brought this instrument from Andhra Pradesh is a convincing proof of its Telugu connection.

Anchoring on the 1901 Travancore Census records, Vinod points out how the journey of Devadasis through centuries finally ends in Kerala where the dance form was protected.

The film is unique, being one of the first to portray convincingly the metamorphosis of Mohiniyattam over the centuries and is a potential tool for any researcher. It has been duly dedicated to Kalamandalam and Orikkaledath Kalyani Amma, the first teacher in the institution where the dance was resurrected in 1932.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 11:29:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/dance/in-search-of-the-roots-of-mohiniyattam/article6287385.ece

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