‘Dancers lack professional approach’

Mohiniyattam danseuse Neena Prasad Photo: Hareesh N. Nampoothiri   | Photo Credit: Hareesh N. Nampoothiri

O ne of the most sought after Mohiniyattam dancers among the present generation, Neena Prasad has found a place of her own in the repertoire with her distinctive style and approach. Excerpts from an interview with the artiste:

When it comes to your innovations in Mohiniyattam, were they deliberate attempts or did they just happen?

Of course, they were deliberate attempts that happened over time. My gurus, Kalamandalam Sugandhi and Kalamandalam Kshemavathi, introduced me to a style of Mohiniyattam that had a charm of its own. But then my experience with other dance forms and my experience as a dancer outside Kerala prompted me to think beyond, thus redefining the aesthetics of Mohiniyattam in my own vocabulary. When I was invited to perform at Soorya in 1998, I started working on my own choreographic pieces, which were well received. That was a start and later I got opportunities to perform at prime stages in Chennai. Thus, the repertoire and potential of my Mohiniyattam performances evolved as I myself evolved as a dancer.

Speaking of your attempts to bring ‘chitta’ into the repertoire, how did that happen?

I was trained in both the schools of Mohiniyattam and even the basic adavus in them were highly contradicting. Although I used to take the liberty to switch between the two styles during my own performances, I found it rather confusing to practise or to train. I was also doing my research during that period, which prompted me to think about what was lacking in Mohiniyattam to stand on its own as a complete dance form. I felt that it was high time for the grammar to be codified and as I shared my idea with Sugandhi teacher, she offered me all support. I had my lessons in mridangam and that also was one of my strengths in doing it. Over the years, with inputs and support from Sugandhi teacher, I’ve made a vocabulary that has 116 adavus and 18 charis spread across 17 strategically categorised groups. Currently, I am in the process of documenting them.

Bringing ‘chitta’ into the learning system certainly benefits students being trained in the dance. How do you think it will bring a change in the way it is performed and to the repertoire in general?

When students get trained under a system, their adavus will be perfect, their movements will be accurate and on the stage it will be evident that they are disciplined, trained dancers, unlike many in the scene today. In one particular review of my performance it was mentioned, ‘here is a dancer whose geometry of Mohiniyattam is clear’. Clearly, it is not just during the training, it will certainly reflect on what you do on stage as well.

There is no doubt that Mohiniyattam is growing but it may not be at the same pace as Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi, even in Kerala. What do you think is limiting Mohiniyattam from taking that leap forward?

Mohiniyattam is one of the toughest disciplines, I would say. It demands a great deal of creativity as a dancer. The dance should not be ‘jerky’ and the slow-pace makes it even more challenging for the dancer to keep in sync with the rhythm. Thus, it requires a lot of patience and training. This might be a reason.

Although Mohiniyattam belongs to Kerala, not many dancers from here make it to the top...

We do have good performers but I feel dancers here lack a professional approach in building their careers. Also, opportunities to be seen by different people are minimal.

For some years now, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi has been organising ‘Mohini Nrithyathi’ aimed at propagating the art form. Do you think it serves the purpose?

The plan certainly is good but it calls for improvements in execution. Young dancers do get stages and they are seen by the rasikas within and outside the state. But a certain quality needs to be maintained and the screening process has to be transparent. Put enough thought into improving the presentation as well, such as adequately supporting artistes to have live accompaniments and providing them with proper stage-light-sound arrangements. Just giving them stages in the name of exposure won’t be enough if the idea is to bring them up as professional dancers and to improve the quality of their performance.

Mohiniyattam is still considered as a dance form suited for females. How could it be made suitable for males too?

There is no doubt that the dance needs to be gender-neutral. But, when female performers themselves are only a few, it will be hard to find a male dancer who is a genius in all terms to shoulder the art of Mohiniyattam and give such an experience to the audience.

So, do you plan more male-oriented choreographic works similar to ‘Sakhyam’?

Maybe they can establish with that. Nayaka–oriented subjects, as in the case of ‘Sakhyam’, may be better for male dancers.

Being someone who has tried out many experiments in the dance form, it’s surprising that costume goes untouched.

I am someone who has actually tried different colours and materials in costumes. But I always keep that traditional bend towards the art form. As I see it, aharya is a personal idea. What I feel is comfortable and good for me is what matters to me. If some other dancers feel a different kind of costume is good for them and for Mohiniyattam, they are free to try that. I’m not against such ideas.

And what costume do you suggest for male dancers? There are male dancers performing in female attire.

I do not believe in that. A male dancer should not be in disguise as a female dancer. Whether it is male or female, it is also your individual self coming out though one’s dance. Again, it is up to them to choose what’s best for them.

It may be untrue, but there are remarks now and then that Mohiniyattam still revolves around sringara aspects and Swati kritis. There is no innovation… and so on. How do you react to such notions?

When a Bharatanatyam dancer performs a Tanjore quartet varnam, everybody will say ‘how traditional she is’. I always wonder, why one can’t appreciate a Mohiniyattam dancer who is doing something traditional in her repertoire? It is important for a dancer to know how to handle a traditional poetry. ‘Sa Para Vivasa...’ is one of my much appreciated varnams. Even though the Swati composition has the traditional nayika, it is the treatment that helped me to gain attention in contemporary times. This is one aspect and secondly, I do not think Mohiniyattam is still revolving around Sringara aspects or Swati kritis alone. Most of the dancers nowadays are trying out different themes and innovative choreographic works. Actually, I miss some of those traditional items lately!

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 5:55:27 AM |

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