Doyenne of a dance tradition

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama immortalised the Kalamandalam school of Mohiniyattam. She braved odds and criticisms and kept its structure pure.

September 17, 2015 02:44 pm | Updated 02:44 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama

By the time poet Vallathol was bewitched by the beauty of the undulating body movements and the myriad dispositions of sringara in Mohiniyattam, this female classical dance tradition had been on the brink of extinction. The gurus he had found for the continued existence of the heritage left Kerala Kalamandalam one after the other towards the late 1940s. The last of the maestros was Thottassery Chinnammu Amma who joined the institution in the early 1950s. Of her disciples Kalamandalam Sathyabhama rose to become an icon in the field braving all odds. Her demise at the age of 77 has left a void none of her distinguished disciples and peers can make up for.

Born on November 4, 1937, at Shoranur as the daughter of Venat Ammini Amma and Krishnan Nair, Satyabhama had inherited a taste for dance and music from her mother, an outstanding Kaikottikali artiste. Sathyabhama joined Kalamandalam to learn dance when she was barely 14 years old. Apart from her tutelage in Mohiniyattam under Chinnammu Amma, Sathyabhama learnt Bharatanatyam under gurus, A.R.R. Bhaskar and Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Warrier. She took a few lessons in Kathakali too. But she soon realised that Mohiniyattam was her forte.

As Chinnammu Amma had by then forgotten most of the items, Sathyabhama could study from her only one cholkettu, two jathiswarams, one varnam in raga Yadukulakamboji and one or two padams that closed in on abhinaya. In course of time, Kalyanikutty Amma taught her yet another cholkettu, the padam, ‘Enthaho Vallabha’ and one of her own compositions, ‘Varika varika sakhi’.

When it came to feet-position and body-postures, the styles of Chinnammu Amma and Kalyanikutty Amma were perceptibly different. Sathyabhama made a successful attempt to harmonise both the styles in her choreographies resulting in the formation of around 65 adavus, nearly half a dozen padams and varnams.

Adavus and abhinaya in those days were mutually exclusive entities. It was left to the glorious task of Sathyabhama to see that each adavu is followed by an abhinaya segment. In ‘Danisamajendragamini’, the Thodi varnam of Swati Tirunal that Sathyabhama choreographed, this was experimented with remarkable effect on stage. Interspersing of abhinaya with each adavu henceforth became a decisive attribute of the varnam in each and every Mohiniyattam recital.

As more students started enrolling at Kalamandalam for Mohiniyattam, Sathyabhama evolved a compact repertoire. With the unstinting support of the vocalist-cum-violinist N.K. Vasudeva Panickar and mridangam artiste V. K. Ramakrishnan, she composed varnams and padams of Swati Tirunal and Irayimman Thampi. In the vinyasa segments of the varnams, Sathyabhama applied brief improvisations one of which is the Nayika hit by the five arrows sent by Lord Kamadeva. Her manodharmams seldom transgressed the boundaries of lasya.

She firmly believed that sringara/lasya and its multiple shades alone formed the emotional contours of Mohiniyattam. Other rasas, she asserted, could only be employed as sancharis (shifting) whatever the item presented in Mohiniyattam. The tempos of the dancer, Sathyabhama insisted, shall not cross over to the third or fourth. Fast tempos, she was afraid, would ruin the grace of the ulachil and the chuzhippus the dancer has to revel during Nritta (pure dance) and Nritya (expressional dance). At the same time, she advocated the third tempo for the crucial parts ‘thei thi thi thei’ and for ‘thi thi thei thi thi thei’ in the Thillana.

I remember the hue and cry raised by the legend, the late Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, decades ago against the Kalamandalam school of Mohiniyattam for changing the hair-style of its Mohiniyattam dancers. It was Sathyabhama who made the change from from the traditional ‘braided hair’ to konda (tying up the hair on the left side of the head shaped like a bun), a stylistic reformation that had the silent sanction of eminent connoisseurs. The inspiration was a Ravi Varma painting.

Sathyabhama did not however answer her Guru. The controversy soon petered out. The new hair style withstood the test of time. She also stood by the Carnatic classical music for Mohiniyattam, the legitimacy of which has been questioned by the proponents of Sopanasangeetham and indigenous artistic genres.

What is the quintessence of Sathyabhama’s contribution to the art of Mohiniyattam? She was probably preordained to receive the organic framework of this dance tradition from Chinnammu Amma, however limited its nature and scope was in those days. She did not allow its structure to be corrupted by unfettered imagination and ruthless experimentation. Emulated by her illustrious disciples and the younger generation of dancers, Sathyabhama has immortalised the Kalamandalam school of Mohiniyattam. Till her final breath, she represented its unfading values of transparency, simplicity, rustic elegance and directness.


Kalamandalam Kshemavathy: I remember Sathyabhama teacher as a disciplinarian in the Kalari where she used to assist Chinnammu Amma teacher. She was very much concerned about positioning of the hand-gestures and the elbow. I was fascinated by her choreography of the Swati Tirunal varnam, ‘Danisamajendra gaamini’. On completion of the course at Kalamandalam, I learnt this varnam from her privately. Her Kalari made me realise the discipline and neatness needed in the movements and expressions of Mohiniyattam. She exemplified the deep bond between the guru and shishyas that is no more there in the field of traditional performing arts.

Kalamandalam Sugandhi: I attended the Mohiniyattam Kalari of Sathyabhama teacher in 1967-68. I was raw and got transformed into a fine student by her. The art form was then undergoing a revival under her creative guidance. I was fortunate to be part of the process. I was the one then chosen for executing the 28 adavus and the two newly choreographed padams in raga Dwijavanthy and Aahari. I happened to be the first Mohiniyattam dancer whom Sathyabhama teacher selected for trying the konda which henceforth became the hallmark of Mohiniyattam.

Kalamandalam Leelamma: I have often felt Sathyabhama teacher had a special affinity towards me. She was instrumental in shaping my career as a Mohiniyattam dancer. In my student days, all of us, students and teachers, lived like a family. The concert form of Mohiniyattam which is widely accepted by dancers and connoisseurs alike is the result of Sathyabhama teacher’s indefatigable efforts in that direction. The adavus she brought into Mohiniyattam and the varnams and the padams she choreographed are her exclusive contributions. She never claimed any credit for whatever she did in her field. She was generous to the core in appreciating the artistry of her disciples and had a deep concern for those who adhered to the tenets of the Kalamandalam school of Mohiniyattam.


Central and State Sangeet Natak Akademy Awards, Padma Shri from the President of India, State Government’s highest honour – Keraleeya Nritya-Natya Puraskaram and Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship

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