Friday Review

Whither Mohiniyattam?

Dancer and Mohiniyattam exponent Methil Devika Photo: S. Gopakumar

Dancer and Mohiniyattam exponent Methil Devika Photo: S. Gopakumar   | Photo Credit: S.GOPAKUMAR

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The author, a performer and educator, muses on the state of the art form today and throws up some provocative points to ponder on.

Of all the research papers that I have come across, a must-read is a thesis by researcher Justine Alexia Lemos who has positioned Mohiniyattam vis-à-vis the socio-cultural context of the sambandham or ‘alliances’ rampant in Kerala in the 19th century. For students pursuing historical research in Mohiniyattam, Lemos’ is a new take. In her thesis ‘Bracketing Lasya; An Ethnographic Study of Mohiniyattam Dance’, Lemos has revealed a convincing historical process as well as brought in a previously unheard list of the then practitioners of Mohiniyattam. Lemos demonstrates how the artistic degeneration in the 19th century occurred in direct relationship to the reframing of the Nair marriage practices and the subsequent changes in Kerala’s caste, class and religious structures. One can laud her first three chapters.

After all, it is a no-brainer to presume that Mohiniyattam or its primal form may not have originated in Kerala. My own research on the ‘indigenous’ has made me realise that one cannot call anything completely indigenous especially with respect to Mohiniyattam. Neither the talas, nor the ragas, nor the hastas, nor the repertoire were completely Keralite. Not even the edakka or the maddalam. Talas such as Kundanachi or Lakshmi that every dancer of today reels about in her lecture demonstrations were never Keralite. They were brought to Kerala and nurtured here. Kerala is a land that nurtures and preserves and in its preservation, Mohiniyattam and all the above entities have become indigenous.

For students doing research on the text Balaramabharatam with respect to Mohiniyattam, one can only render a word of caution: ‘Beware!’ One cannot conclude it to ‘have’ or ‘not have’ association with Mohiniyattam without sufficient evidence. Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, there were artistic forms in southern India with the term Mohini. One may not even know if the person who played the part of Mohini was a man or a woman. One wished that research work could be done on allied subjects rather than pondering over clichés. Dancers and writers use borrowed statements of others without any proper research or references. I particularly mention Lemos because many of her findings are likely to manifest in writings, lectures or in films without any credits and soon the history she has traced will be ‘his story’.

There is also dearth of basic know-how in open defenses for dance research, right from the methodology of a simple synopsis to the choice of examiners, and least to say, the final verdict. Dance research is a new stream in Kerala and it is suggested that the authorities observe some of the defences happening in dance departments outside Kerala for a better idea on the requisite methodology for such open defences.

When the dancer becomes a bystander

Seminars in Mohiniyattam are completely disappointing. There was one session on ‘Elabo- rating Guru’s work’ where each dancer had to recount her experience with her guru and the guru’s work. How simple a feat! Yet, it was surprising how no one observed their mentor’s work. A student of Bharati Sivaji failed to notice the aesthetics of her guru and went on to present only excerpts from her own work. On another seminar on ‘Symbols’, there was a prominent Mohiniyattam performer who said that the weight of the side hair-do of Mohiniyattam is what makes one gravitate to a ‘dwibhangi’ position! An academic-dancer said: “Nandikeswara says nritta is bhavaviheenam and I refuse to accept it.” What did she mean by ‘she’ refuses to accept? There were commentators centuries ago who refused to accept it.

During a seminar, I heard a group talk of a category called ‘Mister Mohiniyattams’. Make no mistake. They were not talking about the male artistes who dance Mohiniyattam. They were talking of self-proclaimed male critics who ‘talk’ Mohiniyattam endlessly.

Mohiniyattam calls for minimalism and the beauty is discerned. Talking about beauty, recently, I was not upgraded at the Delhi Doordarshan. One of the jury members called on me to reassure that the video recording from the regional station was bad and that it was only a technical flaw. She proceeded to mention that the co-judge, a Bharatanatyam critic, said that I was not ‘visually appealing’ and she had to comply with the co-judge’s will as she was obliged to her on many accounts. So, did I believe them? The answer is, I ‘chose’ to believe them because it was not worth too much introspection. But what bewildered me was when she assured me that I will qualify if I re-apply after six months. In six months would I not grow older and less appealing visually? A prominent Mohiniyattam dancer who did not get through the upgradation (with the same jury on-board) opined that we could write to a powerful art promoter who has agreed to put it forward to the requisite authorities. My reply was instant, ‘I would rather keep my present grade!’

The powerful set norms. Mohiniyattam could soon relegate to being an unintelligent political art-form.

Dancers host festivals and invite other dancers so that the former can be invited by the latter who host bigger festivals in other places. There will come a time when dance will be identified not by styles but by people’s names. I already hear people say, “that style is a Priya akka, that is a Padu akka and that one a Maharajji.” And so let it be.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 2:24:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/whither-mohiniyattam/article6334879.ece

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