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Life cycle of a dance form
- Nanditha Prabhu, Chennai

September 17, 2012

Dance has been part of nature from the resurgence of life itself. Dance has slowly and steadily evolved from mere expressions of joy and sorrow, to celebration of life, to exposition of rituals and belief systems, to evolution of human psyche. When I was virtually traversing through this dance hierarchy, it was the most humbling experience to realise the expressions of great minds that have soared higher than the mundane existence and recreated and represented subtle truths through their evocative expressions.

Dance once was just the simple venting of one's inner feelings which later became a medium of storytelling. It was an oral tradition unintentionally recording our history, culture and traditions. As human mind evolved, these expressions acquired new horizons and newer meanings, accentuating on theories of Rasa (aesthetics). It became a gratification for the senses and akin to enlightenment for the soul.

In Bharatavarsha or the Indian sub-continent, Creation itself is believed to be the cosmic dance of the Supreme Lord. There is a mythological story which highlights both the Shivatatva and Vishnutatva, or the essence of life, thus: Once Adishesha, the serpent, who coils himself to transform into Lord Vishnu's bed, is unable to bear the weight of Lord Vishnu. When the weight goes on increasing and when the pain is unbearable, Adishesha asks Lord Vishnu the reason for this sudden change. Vishnu says that it is due to the rise and fall of His breath. This rise and fall of Lord Vishnu's breath is the Dance of Lord Shiva. This formless dance of Shiva represents Creation inside Lord Vishnu, who is the embodiment of Maya or illusion. Lord Vishnu is enjoying this dance of Lord Shiva inside him and thus Adishesha is unable to bear the weight of his Lord. Dance, thus is not just a means and end of entertainment to Bharatavarsha, it is an identity of existence, a celebration of life itself.

All dance forms of India, be they folk, classical or ritual have a spiritual undertone and common thread of celebration of life and self. There are many dance forms which have existed from time immemorial and which still continue to live. Many have adopted and adapted to various changes in its journey, some have just been erased from memory, and many are transformed into newer dance forms. Like life itself which we believe is cyclic, dances too have their life span. They go through the different stages of life: conception, birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death and at many times even rebirth. Keeping this in mind and assimilating the various tapestry of dances, is indeed interesting.

I tried to meander the path traversed by a desi dance form of Kerala, Mohiniattam, with the enthusiasm of a researcher and excitement of an amateur. Like all dance forms in India which has been conferred the "classical" credibility, tracing its conception and roots have been a bit challenging. I have been told that Mohiniattam is a nascent dance form and at the same time, that it is a dance with a hoary past. Because of the many missing links, it is always difficult to get a complete picture of the dance itself. Being closely associated with this dance form since my childhood, I can only intuitively say that Mohiniattam is a rebirth of an existing art form and vision of its past life being hazy does not make it any less credible or authentic.

About the conception of Mohiniattam's past life, we today can only make wild guesses taking clues from our historical past: cultural, social, political and spiritual. There are problems involved even here, as many times our past has not been documented or has at various stages been distorted. Mohiniattam's past has also moved up and down the graph of its life to eventually dissolve only to be reborn again into its present form. Memories of its past, however obscure it might seem only helps us define and redefine its identity and individuality. The debate on whether it was an extension of Dasiattam or dance of the Talinagai, or whether it was the brainchild of Swati Tirunal or a poor cousin of Sadiraatam, all seem futile. They must all have been strong influences on this dance, each nourishing it during its glorious years.

Taking in strong vaasanaas from its previous janma (birth), Mohiniattam which was conceived in the creative energies of Mahakavi Vallathol and Mukunda Raja and in many of the known and unknown heroes and heroines, was born in the institution Kalamandalam. Along with her other siblings, she had her childhood untainted by the expectations, promises and vain hopes that awaited her growth. Her childhood was uneventful; being a bit timid by nature, she struggled through her initial years. Her unambitious nature only made one wonder and anxious of her future.

But every bud has to bloom and so did she. She stepped into an effervescent youth imbibing, learning, and experimenting with her life. And this is where I find Mohiniattam today. It is both elated and confused: elated at the innumerable scope for growth and umpteen horizons that it can explore, but confused by the obliviousness of the situation. This I think is reflected in the dance and the dancer. This is a beautiful stage and I am glad to be witnessing and experiencing it. Mohiniattam tomorrow will surely have a more mature face. A dancer learns, loves and lives the dance and the dance forms, reforms and transforms it and the dancer.

Nanditha Prabhu is a Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam dancer trained under her mother Kalamandalam Suganthi and Padma Subrahmanyam respectively. She runs her dance school Mythri Art Academy in Chennai.

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