Traditions in Mohiniyattam: A closer look
- Dr. Neena Prasad

September 28, 2012

A Bani is the result of a creative process where a mind is engaged in reconstructing an art discipline to a certain aesthetic elevation by breaking the existing norms akin to a system practiced. The conceived mind here, leads to a customization of a whole new system of stylization. This pursuit of the mind may be subjective for others at that time of conception, but it will certainly lead to becoming a milestone for the art form itself, through successful performances of practitioners. Here, a Bani gets established. The established Bani carries a distinct identity that can be traced based on the social background and geographic location.

In a more specific sense, a Bani can be understood as the discipline applied on the art form in terms of practice. To cite an example in the Carnatic music tradition, a Bani or a school may be identified either based on the richness in Bhava, or when it is more inclined towards exploring the laya vyavahara, or when the focus is concentrated on intricately webbing a raga alapana while rendering a kirtana. For ex. in Veena Dhanammal Bani, we will see the elaborate exploration of raga along with interludes of laya, an Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar school had more emphasis laid on the laya aspects than on raga alapana. Or later, in a Semmangudi school – the rendition of a kirthana strictly maintained a pad’athi in its gamakas that was passed on generation after generation, while in a Madurai Mani Iyer’s school, the rendition of kirtanas allowed a certain artistic freedom which itself can be called a pad’athi. The above examples explain different Bani-s(schools) with regard to musical pedagogies. Similarly, for dance forms, the pedagogical differences in imbibing the art form as a practice would be - the musical genre adopted by the nattuvanar-s, the characteristics of nritta and nritya elements in the dance, the continuing signature of the founder (passed down) in the tradition; all put together become the yardstick in defining a school.

When does a style and school be confused?
Now, it is possible that even among two practitioners who follow the same Bani, marginal shifts to create variations within the yardsticks or disciplines (when they individually try to experiment based on their aesthetic sensibility) is possible in creating two different artistic expressions; though this should not be registered as different schools. Here, it can be safely stated that the practitioners are exhibiting their individualistic styles. In other words, we can distinguish the difference between a school and style by stating that a school gives a very generic meaning that lays the foundation whereas a style is developed when individualistic frills are added to the foundation, while well within the school’s framework. Invariably, the observers who have very limited knowledge in terms of art traditions tend to juxtapose these two words.

The different schools in Mohiniyattam
Mohiniyattam is an evolving art form. But this doesn’t allow us to conclude that the art form does not exist in the place of its origin without a history.  When we closely observe different schools, it may be surprising to find that the adavus practiced by Sathyabhama vary from Kalyanikutty amma. Despite coming under the same origin of Kalamandalam, this difference existed even as early as late 1940s, early 1950s. Many of the connoisseurs mistake both schools to be close, judging prematurely with the identity of ‘Kalamandalam’ getting prefixed before their names (Kalamandalam Kayanikutty amma, Kalamandalam Sathyabhama). However, a remarkable contrast can be found in the pedagogical approach to structure, in the construction of a movement - the adavu patterns, the mode of swinging the body, the basic stance of feet, so also in the aharya and the repertoire, thus varying drastically.

It can be emphatically stated, that Kalamandalam Sathyabhama followed teaching of Chinnammu amma (Chinnammu amma also briefly learnt under Krishna Panicker but her dance was more influenced by Krishnan Menon - Sathyabhama),  who learnt under Kalamozhi Krishnan Menon, which was strikingly different from that of Krishna Panicker who taught Kalyanikutty amma. Today’s learners of Mohiniyattam need to clearly understand that Sathyabhama was sent to Kalyanikutty amma to further her studies, to find an amalgamation to give Mohiniyattam the much needed momentum by strengthening the grammar. However, on returning to her alma mater Kalamandalam, Sathyabhama resorted to the teachings of Chinnammu amma and embellished it further with just a few refinements in the pedagogic structure. Probing this subject, during one of my interactions with her, she mentioned that she found Kalyanikutty amma school to be distinctly different for it to complement Chinnammu amma’s tradition, a school that was already being followed in Kalamandalam.

We will revisit Kalyanikutty amma’s school in a different context. While on the topic of Bani-s, when it comes to classical dance, it is to be noted that the practitioners who have common Guru differ in their shareerik representation due to the inherent composition of their bodies that gives every learner an identity that is very subjective. This explains why the artistic mode of presentation differs in Kshemavathy, Hymavathy, Leelamma who all come under the same umbrella of Kalamandalam Sathyabhama; Or, Smitha Rajan, Deepthi Omchery Bhalla and others who come under the umbrella of Kalyanikutty amma still shows marginal differences. Here, the practitioners have to be identified with their parent schools alone and their practice cannot be claimed as another tradition or even style, unless they proclaim a deviation from the original as against the yardsticks primarily defined. Also, adding more to the existing style does not necessarily deviate from the original.

To summarise, for Mohiniyattam, we can say two distinct schools existed during its inception at Kalamandalam – Kalyanikutty amma school and the existing Kalamandalam school. Later a new school got added, ie, the Sopanam – Kanak Rele and Bharati Shivaji being the practitioners under the guidance of Kavalam Narayana Panicker. Both the practitioners evolved a new pedagogy of movement for Mohiniyattam that supported their chosen music system. This emerging school also made significant contributions and added glory to the art form. Recognising and acknowledging their work will always be relevant in the context of traditions in Mohiniyattam because the art form had survived more than a decade solely due to these artists who were practicing, performing and popularising it in the national and global context.
Food for thought!
Getting back to Kalyanikutty amma’s school, when we observe closely, we can understand that there were only two true disciples for Krishna Panicker who survived as Mohiniyattam artistes - Kalyanikutty amma and Shanta Rao. However, from Kalyanikutty amma’s book, it is not clear that those adavus mentioned by her actually were all introduced to her by her Guru Krishna Panicker Asan or, if she had taken the core and added new adavus from her experience of study and practice or, if she simply classified the adavus under various pedagogic categories. Considering she has added new adavus to the Mohiniyattam vocabulary, then as a research student of Mohiniyattam, I always would like to find the source of her inspiration, whether it came from watching the efforts simultaneously taking place in sister arts or from any treatise base.

Evolution of Schools with changing times
A school attains solidarity in its fundamentals and pedagogy, and the proof of that will be evident only when it withstands the passage of time. In the format of a school, the roots are the same but each exponent from that establishment should grow individually and should also contribute to the progress of their school. This can be seen across different dance forms in major existing dance schools like Kalakshetra in Bharatanatyam, Kelucharan Mohapatra style in Odissi, Vempati School of Kuchipudi, Shambhu Maharaj tradition in Kathak, Kal’uvazhichitai in Kathakali to name a few. This aspect of a school makes it phenomenal for, it surpasses the test of Time. In Mohiniyattam, this is yet to be witnessed.

Even though Kalamandalam was the prime reason for Mohiniyattam’s revival during the pre-independence era, Kalamandalam till the turn of the millennium, has fallen short in producing performers who can popularise and perfect the techniques present in it.  The early promulgators of this art form were nattuvanar-s/teachers like in the Bharatanatyam tradition. But, the early students who were trained under these teachers did not take it up as a profession nor did they accept the art as a continued commitment in their life. The scene has barely changed even today. Although the academic department in Kalamandalam is making a lot of progress, the same kind of growth is not reflected on the performing side.

In changing times of now, an art form should cater to global audiences.  It is also difficult to classify the contemporary practitioners and performers into a specific art discipline strictly adhering to their parent style. Observing the successful performers of both music and dance of today, none of them follow their Bani in its purest form. Hence, in that sense, the Bani concept in itself is slowly losing its relevance. There has been a liberal give and take in terms of artistic expression enabling them to create a signature of their own, speaking from the point of view of performing tradition. This might appear to be diluting the traditions that were established by stalwarts of previous generations, in a way disappointing many purists. However, this process is bound to become continuous hereon to all Indian art traditions, to support artistic discovery which will lead to innovations in the art traditions, evolving it, and also carrying the cultural ethos of the art and its identity into the future. Here, the amalgamation or exchange is much needed and can be justified as a natural metamorphose of Indian artistic formats into an evolving tradition to keep pace with changing times and saving it from stagnation. After all, the greatness of our traditions lies in acknowledging a visionary, recognising the creative mind’s work, to weave a cultural unity among diverse traditions existing since time immemorial.

Dr. Neena Prasad is a research scholar and a performer / teacher of Mohiniyattam.

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