- Shruthi KP
February 8, 2017
(The story is based after reading many books on Mohiniyattam and is highly influenced by Justin Alexia Lemos’ work. It projects the life of a Nair woman during the decadence period of dance)
Sitting in the brightest part of the room, all were applauding her; the nattuvan would not stop praising her performance. She had done complete justice to his choreography and his teachings. On stage, though he is singing and impressing the audience with his beat and dancers…he is a cautious dog, fully aware of how his troupe is performing. To him, she can never make mistakes and we, the other attakkari and I, can never succeed in achieving appreciation. She is beautiful, as they say smooth wheat skin, beetled mouth, voluptuous is her voice, mind and body. Sensuality oozing out, at appropriate times, like the grace in her dance and a purpose to impress as strong as the beat of her feet.
Sitting in the darkest corner of the room, I folded her clothes smelling the chandanam that had submerged with sweat on to her white veil. I know anyone could have done what she did if given the chance but who gets that chance these days?
“Meenakshiye! Here, you go, one pound rice and few annas,” the nattuvanar dropped it into my hands. My remuneration this time is bigger than before as the landlord for whom we danced is extremely happy with her performance of Mukkutti. Who wouldn’t be, he is a Brahmin lord, hairy in every way, the mukkutti (a tiny little star she wears on her nose) would have been anyway lost in that bundle of hair but we chose to follow tradition and after thoroughly searching him all over, she had sat on his lap and found it in his turban and finally proclaimed that he had been a very mischievous man to have stolen her mukkutti.
I stood there with the other one dancing to the loud beat, sweating in the night heat, faded out by the light of the lamps, straining a smile at every lusty lecher being there. But none watched me; all had their eyes on the onnaam attakkari.
She was onnaam, the first and main dancer whose dance was their pleasure. I was munaam, the third in line and my dance was just a dance to support hers. I was a prop required to enhance the troupe. But then I did not come from where she did. I danced only for myself and for my Shankaran. I danced in the name of god, at festivals and with joy, neither with the purpose to entertain nor to receive any money. We, the Nair women, all learnt Mohiniyattam to please the sambhandham groom sides. Times would have been so different if Shankaran had the courage to stand up for our love but alas for a man to stand up for his love against the community is a great deal to expect. Lord Rama could not do it for devi Sita, how to expect a mere Brahmin man to do it for a Nair woman.
Funny are the ways of the society; at one point sambhandham was a status in society by itself. I remember the day Shankaran and his family had come to visit us as soon as my kettu kalyanam was announced. He was second to his brother and did not have a wife, a Veli and I would be his first official sambhandham. He was a handsome man, a good man, he cared much for me… romanced me a little. He was smitten by my dancing, he says. He once brought jewellery that the dasis wore, it looked a little alien to me …I did not know how exactly to wear it.
It had three strings and two pendants, one like the moon and the other like the sun. From some random memory I figured out as I remembered them when performing for an occasion. It went on the head, the three strings adorn the forehead and the centre part of the head while the other two were tied to the left and right respectively. They were of chompu stones and sparkled like red fireflies. I was shy; it did look beautiful but it’s Shankaran’s eyes that melted my heart. I felt like the most adorned and beautiful woman wearing those ornaments on my head.
Five years have passed, now suddenly we wear blouse like the dasis, in the open defining no difference between her and me, suddenly my sambhandham is no more legal they say, comparing it to many of hers, suddenly I have no status in society as the wealth is no more passed to me but to the men in my family. Like the Brahmins, our men have more control. Everything we did had a new dimension; it was perceived from a point of purposeful need for dominance. Even our harmless dance was termed derogatory. And, those in sambhandham and without husbands are doomed forever. Sambhandham were “legally” banned. Like they banned the Devadasis. Are we the same? She too fell from the Devadasi… it had been banned for some time now. She was far more experienced in this game of love, dance, and money. My dance, my status fell along with hers but I had no landing.
Wisdom comes late... long after the experience, sometimes rarely. In my case, I am yet to naturally submit to my instincts…likewise that night I failed to do the same. There was news among people of how the Nair babus were brainwashed by the structure of the English and wished to keep the salaries to themselves; they also wanted to change property from the mother to the father and wanted a patriarchal society. They were ashamed of sambhandham. They wanted their Nair women to wear blouses! But only the dasis wore blouses! Surely the government would think of the catastrophe, where would we go…with no power, property or relation? These changes were not tides; they would create storms in our lives. I was wrong.
It had been a year since our sambhandham was official, I expected him early. The parijata flowers bloomed that night, the rains trickled like a never ending forlorn rhythm. The smell of parijata should have warned me that, like hers, my love too will fail. He was late. Shankaran walked in, he did not wash his feet, did not place his towel where he usually keeps it and he did not look into my eyes…the fragrance of the parijata had grown stronger but all I wanted was for him to look into my eyes. He sat at the edge of the bed, focusing on his toes as he broke the news. “The new system will let me be married…to a Brahmin woman. If we continue our relation we will be against the law of land…of community.” By now, I had a headache and my right leg would not stop trembling, I had to sit down. I sat next to him at the edge of bed wanting to touch him so that he vanishes and I realize it’s a nightmare. Wanting not to touch him, as it would make all this real.
“We…I have to make a choice. And I have. I cannot hold on to this, Meena, I am not built to fight wars of the soul. You should move on…” He stuffed some money into my hands and left. He did not look into my eyes, he did not touch me that night yet for the first time I felt like a woman used and paid, an experience that will reoccur many times to come.
All jewellery are stacked, clothes are stacked and packed for our manager to carry. We have few days before our next dance. I may or may not be required…I am after all third in line. The last to receive the remuneration, the first to receive the last portion of any share. As we walked out of the room, some of the lords were still around waiting to get a chance to talk to the manager, or her. They almost looked like bulls expecting to be fed or face the consequence. At times like these, I feel pity towards her. If only she was born a few decades earlier.
The queen Sethu Lakshmi Bai had first banned the Devadasi system a decade back, the dasi too had lost her status in the society but by the time of the ban it didn’t really matter, they were considered a cursed community a long time ago. Gone were the days when the dasis were called for weddings or considered as good luck, gone were the days when they were showered with wealth for their dancing skills and contribution to the system. Those were the days of Swathi Thirunal Maharaj who had put all dancers and musician on a pedestal. Dasis were different from the court dancers but all dances were sacred, including what I do now: Mohiniyattam. The dance of the sensual Mohini. Of course they were also married to the temples which gave them sanctity naturally but that too was taken away as kings fell and an Angla Raj set in. Lack of patrons led to the fall of Devadasis and court dancers. That is how the lineage changed to this decadence and debauchery…from bhakti dancer to becoming an attakkari. Her fate was no less fortunate than mine but she approached hers from a different dimension. She seems to be natural at it, charming men and humbly accepting the money.
She would do all performances like a mohini; as she danced and applied the chandanam on men, they seem to be alive, leering at her like an instrument of pleasure. For the dance Poli we only had to make her stand in the middle and money would fall generously into the cloth laid in front of her.
It was the queen who played the important role in changing the society to patriarchal, in destroying what I had…my Shankaran, my sambhandham, the little wealth that I had was given to the men of the household. From being a woman of status I was suddenly marginalised. Suddenly my family was ashamed of me; perhaps the new power gave them the new fear that I might take away the wealth. I was abandoned to be received by a gypsy troupe that performed Mohiniyattam at the call of the lords. All in secret, of course. We were a bunch of forced enthusiastic survivors using that little bit of skill to exist in a society that in the blink of an eye had marginalised us.
She did not have a choice of being tired; she had to talk to the lesser ones before we carried on to our caravan. We sat looking at each other, in her eyes I realised she knew how little respect I hold for her.
“This is the way of life; there is no other way of living it now.”
“I do not come from such a background.”
“Ha-ha!! What is such a background? Do you even have a background? It matters no more Meenakshi, yours and mine has been moulded into one background. There is no Dasiyattam or Mohiniyattam. We all do the dance of shame… some call it Mohiniyattam and some call it Dasiyattam. We own a background that our community will be always ashamed of.”
It was like the taste of kashayam, her words…it drove to me that I could scream my lungs out about status, about being Nair but will no more be perceived as a woman of good standard. I had no choice in what I had become. I only moved with what society said and did. I was new to this. Will times change again? Will our dance be perceived in a different way? Will we have a choice to dance for ourselves, like the old times? Will we have the choice to a status?
The caravan moved on to an unknown journey…
Shruthi KP is a Mohiniyattam dancer who heads Taamara Dance Centre and Taamara Foundation. She wishes to empower classical dance through various channels. Currently, she is involved in Mohiniyattam research and practice under the guidance of scholar Guru Nirmala Paniker.
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