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Mohiniyattam Missteps - A few observations
- Methil Devika

July 31, 2014

Of all papers that I have come across, a must-read is the thesis by recent researcher Justine Alexia Lemos who has carefully detailed out the positioning of the form of Mohiniyattam vis-à-vis the socio-cultural context of the sambandham or 'alliances' rampant in Kerala in the 19th century. Betty True Jones has much earlier given a commendable historical detailing of Mohiniyattam in comparison to others but Lemos' is a new take. For students pursuing historical research in Mohiniyattam, common references have for the past so many decades been P. Soman, Guru Kalyanikuttyamma, Dr. Kanak Rele, and Leela Nambudiripad. Every student can talk yarns about Gurus Kalyaniamma, Kunjukutty amma, and Chinnammuamma, and their contribution to the Kerala Kalamandalam. Vyavaharamala of the early 18th century is the oldest reference to Mohiniyattam. And that is because no research seems to have gone beyond it. One also finds the novel Meenaksi quoted regularly as a valid evidence of how the dance became debased by the turn of the 20th century. Lemos in her thesis 'Bracketing Lasya; An Ethnographic Study of Mohiniyattam Dance' has done wonders in her first three chapters of revealing a more convincing historical process through which the form was resurrected. She has brought in a whole new list of the then practitioners of Mohiniyattam and their dance.

It is a no-brainer to presume that Mohiniyattam, or its primal form may not have originated in Kerala after all. My own research on the 'indigenous' has made me realize that one cannot call anything completely indigenous especially with respect to Mohiniyattam. Neither the talas, nor the ragas, nor the hastas, nor the instruments were completely Keralite. One can lean on various sources for premising Mohiniyattam to have come from other streams and to have evolved in the Malayali soil. It did not enjoy a family lineage in Kerala unlike other art forms but it did have random periods of existence. The repertoire as is performed today obviously is not purely Keralite. Neither the edakka nor the maddalam were purely Keralite. And if one thinks that doing research on Keralite rhythms would be of essence, one could go wrong there too. Talas like kundanachi or lakshmi that every dancer reels about in her lecture demonstrations were never Keralite. They were brought to Kerala and nurtured here. I would say that Kerala is a land which nurtures and preserves and in its preservation, Mohiniyattam and all the above entities have become indigenous.

A common trend is students doing research on the text Balaramabharatam which again gives one or two random references to some form called Mohini natanam. For those doing research on it on the basis of it being Mohiniyattam, I can only render a word of caution. 'Beware!!' One cannot conclude it to 'have' or 'not have' any association with Mohiniyattam without sufficient evidence, as what is mentioned there is only about the stance that Mohini takes. The term Mohini can be the Mohini in Mohinivilasa Kuravanji or jakkini or simply mean a beautiful lady. One may not even know if the one who played the part of Mohini was a man or a woman.

Much research in Mohiniyattam is done on its history trying to find missing links every time. And after all the research, the links still remain missing. One wished that work could be done on allied subjects rather than pondering over clichés. Paper presentations I have come across have used and re-used borrowed statements of others without any valid information or proper research. Lemos' was a breakthrough but she may soon be forgotten. Common practice of researchers and a common trend one sees here with respect to papers or choreographies is to not give references at all. Lemos is not known to me. I mention her because many of her findings are likely to be quoted without any credits. And with the phenomenal work done by her I do not want history to be 'his story.' I have myself forwarded her work as resource material to researchers and prospective film-makers on Mohiniyattam. But I am also apprehensive about whether she will be given due credit. I wish to write down a couple of interesting lines from her thesis.

Lemos says that most of the Mohiniyattam dancers in the 19th century were from financially sound families. She quotes a Mohiniyattam dancer Bhanumathy as recalling how the dancers got married to wealthy people. Lakshmi amma got married to a Brahmin, Kunjukuttyamma got married to a doctor and another Lakshmi amma got married to a Nambudiri. Lemos probes her interlocutor further. She asks her what she means by kalyanam or marriage. Bhanumathy laughs and replies that by 'marriage' she means alliances called sambandham. "We cannot call it a marriage," says Bhanumathy, "they got together with these men sometimes for life, and sometimes 'temporarily'." Lemos ratifies, 'the relationship between Nambudiri and wealthy Nayar patrons, sambandham and Mohiniyattam dance seems clear.' Lemos demonstrates subsequently 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 not because they may be entirely true but for the enormity of materials she managed to source as primary information.

Trends - when dancer becomes bystander
Seminars in Mohiniyattam are completely disappointing. There was one session on 'Elaborating Guru's work' organized in Ramamangalam where each dancer had to recount their experience with their gurus and their work. How simple a feat! Yet, not many of the dancers present there even remotely identified the subtleties in their mentor's work. I do not think they even noticed. I was surprised how a student of Bharati Sivaji, failed to observe the aesthetics of her guru and went on to present only excerpts from her own work. Fortunately the topic given to me was of 'free spirit' and I was pretty free with that one. On another seminar on 'Symbols' there was one prominent Mohiniyattam performer who said that the weight of the side hair-do of Mohiniyattam is what makes one gravitate to a dwibhangi position. How hilarious! So what about the other side? One must have heavy hair- buns on either side of the head if her hypothesis were to be true. An academician-dancer said, "Nandikeswara says nritta is bhavaviheenam and I refuse to accept it." What did she mean by 'she' refuses to accept it? Can't she just plainly say she was following Bharata? Various commentators on the Natyasastra have elaborated dime a dozen times upon the different perspectives of nritta.

There are a couple of young boys doing Mohiniyattam in Kerala. They are good dancers and work hard but not sure if they will gain acceptance. Recently I heard a group talk of another category called Mister Mohiniyattams. Make no mistake. They were not talking about the male artistes who dance Mohiniyattam. They were talking of men who 'talk' Mohiniyattam endlessly. Some are self-proclaimed critics and essayists too. The dancer who hosts them at her house gets the best review. I have had the great fortune of being reviewed by a few good-hearted critics who were there just with a phone call and during a time when I was merely a student. I did not have to give away pattu sarees or Fab India silk kurtas to beckon them. I remember top-notch critics like Leela Venkataraman and V.R. Devika coming for my performances fifteen years ago and giving me extremely 'constructive' reviews without any exchanges. These days there are younger writers in India and abroad who really see subtleties. Writers must take a page out of Veejay Sai's reviews to know how to write with no strings attached. He may seem a tad too blunt on many occasions but they are truthful nonetheless.

Mohiniyattam has a lot more in it than is evident. It calls for minimalism and the experience of the art grows in time. Which is why it is best performed solo. The embellishments are not explicit but gradually discerned. Mohini is beautiful and takes time to reveal. Talking about beauty, recently I was not given upgradation to 'A' grade at the Delhi Doordarshan. One of the jury members, a leading dancer and a supposedly good friend, 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 to 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 and that was because it was not worth too much introspection. But what bewildered me was when she asked me to re-apply after six months and assured me that I would definitely get. In six months would I not become less appealing visually?? Am I not getting older? A prominent Mohiniyattam dancer who did not get through the A-top audition (with the same jury on-board) innocently opined that we could write to a powerful art promoter who has agreed to put it forward to the requisite authorities. Even before I knew it, out came my reply, "I would rather keep my present grade!!"

The powerful define Mohiniyattam. And if things continue the way it is, it 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. It is sure going to be difficult for aspiring dancers. The new generation in Mohiniyattam is the older generation. I mean there are many young ladies who had stopped practice completely for over a decade and are coming back with their mundus, veshtis and our 'dwibhangi-triggering' head gear. They are excited and hopeful. To those who are serious, there are challenges and one wishes them luck. Dancers fear to use terms like Mohiniyattam or Bharatanatyam for fear of people dictating the dos and don'ts. There will come a time when dance, for the same reason, 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 Paddu akka and that one a Maharaj-ji". And so let it be.

Methil Devika is performer and educator and hails from Palakkad district. She is empaneled with the SPIC-MACAY and the ICCR for Mohiniyattam and received the JRF from Ministry of Culture. She is recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, the Devadasi National Award and the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademy Award. She has worked with Kerala Kalamandalam as lecturer and examiner for MA/MPhil students. Devika has a gold medal in MBA and MA Dance and a UGC/NET in dance in the year 2000. She has submitted her doctoral thesis a year ago and is awaiting viva-voce. She is the artistic director of Sripada Natya kalari which won the state architecture award in 2012.

What a fabulous writing. This needs to be translated and published throughout the kalaris of Mohiniyattam.
(Anon, 3 January 2022)

Of all the actual Mohiniyattam dancers, Methil Devika is one of the most refreshing to watch and read as well. Apart from being beautiful, her mind is very sensitive and very critical at the same time, which is a challenging combination to live within Kerala, where everything is automatically taboo-ed. Being the first foreign Kerala Kalamandalam graduate (without speaking a word of Malayalam), I had the privilege to have personal theory sessions with her and for a time it was the only space where I could ask real questions. Where things were not taken for granted but analyzed, discussed, read and observed from different angles. Back in Mexico, I´m quite happy to read Devika´s questioning across oceans. A critical mind, says Octavio Paz, is always negative, but criticism, when done in the right spirit, brings corrections and new perspectives to our behavior. Mohiniyattam research (perhaps whole Indian Dance research) must become more disciplined and realistic to lead us anywhere. Thank you, Devika, we need you in the Mohiniyattam community.
- Abril Gómez, Mexican Mohiniyattam dancer (Aug 1, 2014)

Nicely written! Kudos to Methil Devika.
- Joyce Kakariyil Paul (Aug 1, 2014)

Good article. True picture of what is happening. People often fail to acknowledge and without any dilemma present as their own work/findings. Also it is really funny to listen /watch people with half knowledge gathered from here and there trying to establish the point.
- Sandhya Radhakrishnan (Aug 1, 2014)

Well written article!!
- Methil Renuka (Aug 1, 2014)

Well thought, well aimed and well written. Bullseye is what the article was written for and it definitely finds it. Love for the art form very visible in each line. Stands out!!!
- Nirmal (Sept 26, 2014)

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