She shaped the art!

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama. Photo: K.K. Najeeb  

The afternoon of January 25 was, like always, quiet for Guru Kalamandalam Sathyabhama. Till phonecalls started pouring in when it was heard that she will receive the Padma Shri. She faced it all with stoically, and her reaction, “Oh, is it so?” was so Zen like.

“Better late than never,” was the attitude of her family and well wishers. For this grand old lady of Mohiniyattom is instrumental for the revival, renaissance and sustenance of the art and its present day stature. And to think her only other recognition was the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award way back in 1995!

Interestingly, her famous disciples, Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, Kanak Rele and Bharati Shivaji have already been honoured with a Padma.

The origins

For a long time, Mohiniyattom came with a stigma attached to it. By the dawn of 20th century, no one wanted to take it up as dancers were forced to perform distasteful items for the male members of affluent families, even though the devadasi system was not so prevalent in Kerala unlike in other States. However, remnants of the art could be seen among a few old nattuvans and practitioners in some places in Palakkad and Thrissur such as Peringottukurussi, Korattikara, Pazhayannur, Kundilasseri and Nelluvai.

Poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958), who founded the Kerala Kalamandalam along with Mukunda Raja in 1930 to ‘save’ Kathakali, also decided to revive Mohiniyattom. To those who questioned his motive, the poet in Vallathol made a public statement: “Never mind. If the Goddess Herself appears before me with morals on one hand and aesthetics on the other, definitely my option is the latter.”

However, it was not easy for Vallathol. To overcome the infamy wedded to the art, he publicised it as a course in dance to impart training in a variety of items including the female roles of Kathakali; efforts were made to teach the available Mohiniyattom pieces. His earlier two attempts, in 1932 and 1937, were not successful. Vallathol made his third and last attempt in 1949 when he hired the services of Thottassery Chinnammu Amma (1900-1977), who had learnt Mohiniyattom during her childhood but had not practised it due to the taboo attached.

Five girls joined the course. One among them was Sathyabhama. “The repertoire was limited to five items,” reminisces Sathyabhama, “a cholkettu in Chakravakam, two jatiswarams in Chenjurutti and Thodi, a varnam in Yadukulakhambodi and a padam, ‘Enthaho Vallabha,’ in Surutti.” Subsequently, she learnt a few more items from Kalyanikutty Amma (1915-1999), a student for three years during Vallathol’s second revival venture.

And then in 1957, Sathyabhama was appointed as a dance teacher at Kalamandalam. She formulated 35 adavus and choreographed new items that resulted in the expansion of Mohiniyattom’s repertoire. The four varnams (‘Danisamajendra Gamini,’ ‘Manasime Parithapa,’ ‘Suma Sayaka’ and ‘Ahantha Vanchithaham,’ in Thodi, Sankarabharanam, Kapi and Dhanyasi respectively) generally accepted as the basics of Mohiniyattom for the past five decades, are the result of this attempt. She also choreographed 11 padams and one thillana, which are performed even today.

Thus, she evolved a strong structure and revived the kutcheri tradition of Mohiniyattom. For these choreographies, she got the support of musicians and scholars such as N.K. Vasudeva Panicker (vocal) and Ramakrishnan Iyyar (mridangam) and her late husband and Kathakali thespian, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair.

The last of the eminent exponents hand-picked by Vallathol himself, Sathyabhama also has had the unique distinction of being the first woman to head Kalamandalam. Most of today’s Mohiniyattom practitioners are either her direct disciples or grand and great grand disciples, and linked to the Kalamandalam lineage that Sathyabhama promulgated.

One of her most significant innovations is the unique coiffure -- hair bunched up on the left side of the head and adorned with jasmine. The thespian says, “Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings on Kerala women were my inspiration. Further, it frees Mohiniyattom from imitating other dance genres.” She tried this experiment for the first time on her disciple Kalamandalam Sugandhi in November 1965 at a function in Kalamandalam to commemorate the birthday of Vallathol. It was well accepted by all, except Kalyanikutty Amma.

The further development of Mohiniyattom during the 1960s was almost parallel to the development of Odissi on another side of the country. But unfortunately, the dispute with Kalayanikutty Amma, regarding the adaptability of Sathyabhama’s coiffure, arguments related to the excessive influence of Bharatanatyam, and the resultant egoistic issues discouraged many dancers from taking it up.

Added to this was the general treatment of Mohiniyattom as a poor cousin of Bharatanatyam and the tendency of Kerala scholars and art aficionados to sideline the art and giving preference to Kathakali and Koodiyattom. Such issues did not allow the art to flourish for a long time.

Again, it was Sathyabhama who, during the 1960s, pioneered group choreographies and ballets in Mohiniyattom, which was till then considered an ekaharya (solo act) form. Vallathol’s compositions ‘Nagila’ and ‘Radhayudekritharthatha’ and Bhagavatha’s ‘Kuchelopakhianam’ are the significant creations in this category.

Sathyabhama remembers, “At Kalamandalam, it was difficult to find well trained dancers for group choreographies as the final batch of students passed out and moved on.” But she has no regrets “as the subsequent generations will change things.”

The demands made by her teaching commitments, choreography, her zeal to groom good performers and family responsibilities (she has two sons and two daughters) forced Sathyabhama to retire from a performance career by the time she was 24. And she handed over the mantle of disseminating the art to her disciples, especially those at Kalamandalam.

In March, 1993, a week before her retirement from Kerala Kalamandalam, on my request she dressed up in costume and performed snippets of her choreographies at the Koothampalam (temple theatre) of Kalamandalam, exclusively for a photo session.

On getting the Padma Shri, she says, “I think my late husband justifiably deserve this honour. I dedicate it to him.”

(The writer is the Director of Centre for Kutiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, of Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 1:18:28 AM |

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