When the visionary poet Vallathol Narayana Menon took up the task of resurrecting Mohiniyattam, the female dance tradition of Kerala, there was a hue and cry among the creamy layers in society against his ‘unethical adventure’. Vallathol braved all the odds and added the ‘rich lasya legacy’ to the curriculum of Kalamandalam. Of those groomed by Kalamandalam in the field of Mohiniyattam within a brief period two names stand out – Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma and Kalamandalam Satyabhama.
While the former moved out of her alma mater to become a freelance dancer and teacher in the late 1940s, the latter, on completion of her course, joined Kalamandalam as a teacher almost a decade later.
Mohiniyattam underwent major transformations structurally and aesthetically in the 1950s and in the early 1960s following deliberations initiated by the practitioners of dance and music and by connoisseurs alike. Satyabhama, by dint of history, played a significant role in the entire process of reformation. She happened to be the lone inheritor of the cholkettu, jatiswaram, varnam and padam in a skeletal form from her Guru, Thottassery Chinnammu Amma, who had forgotten most of the items since the dance form began to be looked down upon by society, ostensibly under the influence of Victorian morality.
Enriching Mohiniyattam Supported by her colleagues in Carnatic music and mridangam, Satyabhama soon started energising and enriching the repertoire of Mohiniyattam. She redefined the movement-dynamics of the dance form inspired by the lasya segments of similar art traditions. Kaikottikkali and Kathakali exerted a positive influence in building up her career in dance choreography.
‘Ulachil’ (swaying of the torso horizontally) and ‘chuzippus’ (bustle of the torso) of the female dance in Kathakali were re-employed in the body kinetics of Mohiniyattam.
Similarly several movements of the feet and positioning of hands from Kaikottikali found legitimate space in Mohiniyattam. The many different manifestations of the Sringara rasa, in consonance with the plight of the separated heroine and in the context of her reunion with the beloved, gained gravity and fluidity in the choreography of Satyabhama. Through an appropriate application of the lessons she had learnt from Chinnammu Amma and Kalyanikutty Amma, Satyabhama composed 45 adavus including a few in the theermanams that form the foundation of the practical training at Kalamandalam all these years.
The swara segment in the varnams received lots of flourishes in her choreography. Swati Tirunal’s ‘Danisamajendra gamini’, the Thodi varnam, ‘Manasime parithapam’, the Sankarabharanam varnam, ‘Pannagendra sayana’, and varnams in ragas Dhanyasi, Kalyani and Sudha Kapi (‘Suma sayaka’) and a host of padams including ‘Viditam thei nisa vrittam’, ‘Kantha thava pizha’ and ‘Tharuni njan’ in raga Dwijavanthi are testimony to the choreographic dexterity of Satyabhama.
It was she who altered the custom of executing all the adavus at a stretch followed by abhinaya. In lieu of this she interspersed abhinaya following each adavu, which is evident in the Thodi varnam. Similarly credit goes to Satyabhama for providing myriad hues of expressions to the Nayika hit by the five arrows of Lord Kamadeva. While almost all the varnams she composed are in Adi tala, the padams are in Misra Chapu, Roopakam and Adi talas.
Innate talent Born at Shoranur in Palakkad district, Satyabhama’s taste for and interest in dance was inherited from her mother, Venatt Ammini Amma, who herself was a renowned Kaikottikkali artiste. At the age of 12, Satyabhama joined Kalamandalam and received rigorous training in Mohiniyattam under Chinnammu Amma.
She simultaneously took lessons in Bharatanatyam from Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Warrier, Achuta Warrier and then A.R.R. Bhaskar.
She had learnt a couple of items in Kathakali under the tutelage of Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, the doyen of the Kalluvazhi Chitta in Kathakali, whom she married.
Satyabhama dedicated her life to the Mohiniyattam kalari. Had she been active on stage as well, she could have made a fabulous impact on her colleagues, disciples and spectators too. Her panache for dance and involvement in characterisation are exemplary.
For her, the undulating torso, circular footsteps, minimal yet fluid hand-gestures and subdued expressions of sringara form the organic framework of Mohiniyattam.
Thanks to Satyabhama’s commitment to teaching, Kalamandalam gave birth to numerous gifted dancers and teachers. Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, Saraswathy, Chandrika, Sugandhi, Vimala Menon, Sumathy, Leelamma and Hymavathy are some of the noted disciples of Satyabhama.
Incidentally, it was Sugandhi who had her debut on stage with a konda (bun-shaped hair style). Switching from the braided hair to the tied up bun on the side of the head was a bold experiment by Satyabhama, which was, in course of time, embraced by almost all Mohiniyattam dancers.
However Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma and her disciples vehemently stood against such a radical makeover. In the last 50 years, Mohiniyattam has been subjected to striking modifications in its ‘chaturvidhabhinaya’ (four-fold concept of acting) by reputed non-Kerala dancers such as Bharati Sivaji and Kanak Rele and by relatively young dancers.
Rooted in the dance Satyabhama is undaunted by offbeat innovations and some of the essential refinements brought in by a select group of dancers. She is content with the quintessence of tradition and has never been inclined to alter the craft or content of the dance form for being politically correct.
Satyabhama has deep trust in the innate purity and simplicity of Mohiniyattam. She neither attempts to sanitise the content nor artificially illuminate the form of this exclusive lasya inheritance.
At times she is sad that her disciples like Leelamma and Hymavathi and their talented young students do not get their due from patrons of Indian performing arts.
The innumerable awards and titles she received hitherto include the Central and Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademy awards, fellowships, Keraleeya Nritya-Natya Puraskaram and the Kerala Kalamandalam Award. The latest honour being conferred on her is the Padma Shri.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Satyabhama's calm demeanour belies her artistry.