Dr Sunil Kothari: His Memories and Thoughts on Mohiniyattam

dr sunil kothari

Earliest memories of Mohiniyattam

(An interview with him in Oct 2012)

I had gone very long ago, in 1966 to Kerala Kalamandalam. At that time, Chinuammuamma, the old grand lady and Krishna Panicker (who had lost one eye), were the teachers. Thankamani, Gopinath’s wife was his earlier student. Chinuammuamma had also learnt Mohiniyattam from Krishna Panicker. Kalyanikuttyamma, wife of Krishnan Nair was his other student. These were the people I knew about who were following Mohiniyattam in Kalamandalam at that time. Then I met poet Vallathol and his son who took me to see the class of Mohiniyattam. I think there were Satyabhama or Leela(mma), I don’t remember well, they were all so young. Class was taken by a young girl but I do remember Chinuammuamma was there. They were doing Cholkettu and other items which were done earlier at Kalamandalam. That was the first time I was seeing a Mohiniyattam class there. It was separate from the Kathakali class for boys. The boys never went to the Mohiniyattam class nor did the girls go to the Kathakali class.


In April 1958 at the All India Dance Seminar held at Delhi, Kerala Kalamandalam had presented Mohiniyattam and Prof Mohan Kokkar had taken photographs which were published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, that year. Then till 1966 I was not able to actively follow the dance scene. So it was in 1966 when I went to Kalamandalam that I was able to collect these information. I was told that Indrani Rehman, Tara Chaudhary (partner of Ram Gopal), Mrinalini Sarabhai, Roshan Vajifdar (Sis in Law of Dr Mulkraj Anand) and Santha Rao too had studied Mohiniyattam at Kalamndalam. Santha Rao had studied from Chinnamuamma also. Later on Rita Devi also learnt there. I do have memory of Indrani Rehman as she had performed in Delhi. She had presented one or two pieces.  In Mumbai of course, Kanak Rele got initiated into Mohiniyattam. She came to Kalamandalam and met Vallathol’s son and with the support of Ford Foundation had recorded the three main dancers of that time,  Kalpurathey Kunjukuttyamma, Totasseri Chinuammuamma and Kalyanikuttyamma. She had shown me all these documentaries.  When Kanak Rele started performing, she also introduced a few items. She did Bhavayami Rraghuramam of Swati Tirunal too. There was a desire in her to do a lot of research in Mohiniyattam, so, we worked on the form, the basic stances, etc .

Meanwhile when I was in Kolkatta, Kalyanikuttyamma came to New Delhi for a lecture demonstration. I told Bharati Sivaji let us go ask her to show all the Pada Bhedas. So, Barathi Shivaji brought Kalyanikuttyamma and she gave us some background of Mohiniyattam and showed the basic movements. We had photographed them and some of them are used in Bharati Shivajis book on Mohiniyattam.

Mohiniyattam became popular in due course, Kanak Rele brought it to the University level, starting courses in Mohiniyattam. Meanwhile in Delhi, Bharati Sivaji got a fellowship from Sangeet Natak Academy, from Kamaladevi Chatopadhyay. She went to Kerala and met Kavalam Narayana Panicker who was working on the various aspects of Talas and introduced number of Talas to Mohiniyattam and most importantly brought Sopanam music to Mohiniyattam. Formerly the Sloka; Tunga Jadaadhara Ganga used at the end of the Cholkettu sounded more like Bharatanatyam music. It was not exactly like what we see now with Sopanam music. When Sopanam music is used in Mohiniyattam it brings out a flavor of Kerala.

During Swati Tirunals time, we all know that Chinnayya, one of the four brothers of the Tanjore quartet had gone to the court and made a format for Mohiniyattam inspired from Bharatanatyam / Sadir. So in the beginning, with Carnatic music and the images, Mohiniyatam would sum up like Bharatanatyam, even while using typical Mohiniyattam movements. Later on, I must confess that I began to feel that when you set to Sopanam music, Mohiniyattam gets an identity of its own, of Kerala. Though, there is nothing wrong in using Carnatic Music as it was quite popular in Swati’s court too.

Now, a lot of things have happened in Mohiniyattam. Neena Prasad who has done her PhD and studied Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi also, has a very good understanding of style and body movements while keeping the different styles separate.

Earlier my criticism about Kanak Rele was about her dramatic expressions in Mohiniyattam ingrained in her due to her training in Kathakali.  In my reviews, often I used to mention that she will have to tone down her abhinaya making it less of Kathakali. Mohiniyattam shouldn’t be overpowered by Kathakali which uses exaggerated abhinaya, instead adopt suggestive abhinaya. Slowly she began to soften her expressions. Among her students, Mandakini Trivedi is a very good Mohiniyattam dancer.

Bharati Sivaji also did a lot of research work and brought out a book too. She has learnt from Kalyanikutyamma. When Protima Bedi started Nrityagram near Bangalore, she often went there to teach Mohiniyattam. So, for some time, a number of girls were learning Mohiniyattam in Nrityagram.  Then when she started her own institution in Delhi, more pupils came to her there.

Thus four distinct schools came to our notice; Kalyanikuttyamma’s style, Bharati Sivaji’s style, Kalamandalam style and Kanak Rele’s style. However, today we see more generosity; people are not parochial and don’t say that this is only the correct way or method. Artistes like Nirmala Panikker are very open to different styles.

But what at one period Santha Rao was doing, was distinctively different. Her style of Mohiniyattam is no more now. It is gone. Her style was a reflection of her personality too. She was a very strong woman and together with her training in Kathakali, her movements were very strong, even her Alarippu. We used to say it was a Mushti yudham!


The present day Mohiniyattam to that in the 60s

Now it is very different. It is more lyrical and very graceful too and has become very widespread. It has acquired a very distinct form which is different from Bharatanatyam. Formerly people used to mistake it for Bharatanatyam. It isn’t so anymore. With the introduction of new themes, new lyrics, and more emotions, it has become more interesting. Though not much experiment has been done, more bhavas are being introduced. I believe, one of Mandakini’s students, Miti Desai had presented a beautiful Padam which was very different from the regular ones. She had used lot of humour and had a different take on the Nayika’s state of mind. Even Mandakini had done one Padam which had Nayika playing the important role in the line of women’s empowerment. Another dancer to reckon is Deepthi Bhalla who has worked on traditional Kerala Talas.

These show the variety and possibilities of Mohiniyattam, like how Bharatanatyam has different Bhanis. It also depends on individual artiste’s own temperament, her own personality and own understanding. Say for example,  Kanak Rele had learnt a lot about body kinetics and dealt with nutrition too. She believes in scientific methods.

As we understand, Mohiniyattam should be very lyrical but shouldn’t be over lyrical too. There should be a restrain.

Other artistes who have impressed

When I get an opportunity, I see Gopika Varma. She did one very good work called Bhama Garva Bhangam. I had told her to call it Tulabharam. She had done it very beautifully and I liked that production. She got the lyrics written in Malayalam and got music composed. It wasn’t about Satyabhama and Rukmini fighting but was differently done.

Another work that caught my attention was Jayaprabha Menon’s where she showed flowing of river using Sitar music. Pallavi Krishnan has done some good production of Tagore, Gopis and Sculpture.

Beyond this I haven’t seen much. Often I watch if any artistes come to Delhi. I have seen Satyabhama, Kshemavathy and Leelamma, earlier. Kshemavathy  I had seen many years ago when she came to Delhi.

Mohiniyattam amidst other classical dance forms of India

Now it has been accepted that there are eight classical dance forms in India. It has remained as an important dance form and people considered it on par with Bharatanatyam and other classical dance forms. Mohiniyattam is considered as a typical cultural heritage of Kerala.

You cant introduce many elements into Mohiniyattam. For instance, Bharati Sivaji did Swan Lake with Tchaikovsky’s music where she used Mohiniyattam and Mayur Bhanj Chau dancer Santosh Nair. It looked very nice and the extension has come. But I am happy with and like the traditional repertoire of Mohiniyattam of Ganapathy, Jeeva etc  which Kavalam Narayana Panicker is using for one and what Deepthi Bhalla wants to do; it will hold.

Ofcourse, Bharatnatyam is the predominant dance form in India and undoubtedly no other style can match it as its form itself is so beautiful. So you can’t compare Mohiniyattam with Bharatanatyam and bring it to that level. It is difficult, for any dance form. Bharatanatyam has been accepted globally.

Lasya traditions of India

Lasya is a quality of movement which is found in Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Odissi and Sattriya too. Tandava and Lasya are two definite divisions and so Lasya as an element can be seen in all these dance forms. We scholars consider Lasya as a part of the dance tradition and it is a predominant part of Mohiniyattam. The dance form is more lasya dominated than any other dance forms of India; a contrast to Kathakali which is very virile.


Articles on Mohiniyattam

I wrote an article on Mohiniyattam in Illustrated weekly (with Vyjayanthimala on the cover), in 1967. Recently I discovered it when I went through my old dance collection. Also I have controversies with Kanak Rele which were published.

By: Rachana

With Priya Krishnadas at ICC, KL

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