Rejuvenation of the folk elements in Mohiniyattam
(By Natana Kaisiki, the Mohiniyattam Dept. of Natana Kairali, Irinjalakuda)
by Nirmala Paniker, Irinjalakuda
Mohiniyattam is a beautiful dance form of the Kerala women and it is one of the classical dance forms of India. Among the various styles (vrthis) detailed by Bharatamuni in his Natyasastra, Mohiniyattam most resembles the Kaisiki (graceful) type. It has often been said that the movements of the limbs and body of a Mohiniyattam danseuse should be gentle and graceful like the waves in a calm sea or the swaying of the paddy field, in the breeze.
The Hero - Heroine or Jeevatma- Paramatma aspect of the present day Mohiniyattam items only makes it possible to think that it has some connection with the Devadasi cult. Even though danseuses and dance forms were attached to Kerala temples from ancient times, many scholars are of the opinion that the Devadasi system did not flourish as a prominent culture in Kerala like the neighboring states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka etc. The reason may be because Kerala already had a well established system of female dancers attached to the ancient type of rituals and worship.
In 1930's at Kerala Kalamandalam, Sri Vallathol Narayana Menon and Sri Manakulam Mukunda Raja took initiative and started a course in Mohiniyattam and that was the beginning of the revival of the present day Mohiniyattam. Those days the Mohiniyattam danseuses used to perform Cholkettu, Swarajathi, Varnam, Padam, Thillana Sloka, Saptam, Polikali, Kurathy, Easal, Chandanam, Mukkuthy and Kummy etc. Due to some social reasons, all items were not included in the syllabus of Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam.
The items that got excluded at Kerala Kalamandalam were Polikali, Kurathy, Easal, Chandanam, Mukkuthy and Kummy. All these items are connected with the Kurathy (goddess) cult of ancient Kerala. This led to a situation that the Desi traditions were conspicuous by their absence in the repertoire and later on to a lot of controversies on the esoteric Kerala traits of Mohiniyattam.
Long before the Vedic culture entered Kerala, the Mother goddess worship was one of the most important cults in Kerala. Every village had its own deity and festivals. The yearly festivals were conducted with ritual art forms like Theyyam, Thira, Mudiyettu, Patayani, Kurathiyattam etc.
The indigenous and ancient Kurathy connection of Mohiniyattam will remove all the controversies on the origin and the Kerala identity of this art form. Kurathys are always considered as connected with magical powers, and in Kerala, Kurathy is considered as one of the oldest forms of goddess Bhagavathy. Even today to get some magical power people worship goddess Kurathy as the favorite deity.
The hill tribes in Kerala and Tamil Nadu still practice some of their magical powers. For example, they do palm reading and tell the remedy for the evils or sins they find, make auspicious threads while chanting mantras and ward off evils by conducting some rituals etc. In Kerala, Kurathy culture could be found in Theyyam too. And in Theyyam there are about eighteen different types of Kurathys and all are connected with magical powers.
From all these we could assume that the root of the Kurathy cult could be found in the very primitive Kerala society, and in their rituals and worships.
All Margi traditions of art forms have their roots somewhere connected with the Desi traditions of that region and it is an unwritten law that these relationships should be kept alive for the development and understanding of the art form.
Natana Kaisiki, the Mohiniyattam research and performing dept. of Natana Kairali (Irinjalakuda) has been doing research on this art form since 1975 and has found the importance of these items and decided to bring them back to the repertoire of Mohiniyattam.
Easal was the first item to be rejuvenated and has been performed at the Natyagriha stage of Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi, Trissur on the 22nd of April 2002, with financial assistance from Govt. of India, dept. of culture, New Delhi. Followed by Easal, Polikali and Chandanam also have been revived and performed at the Nanadurga Goddess temple at Irinjalakuda on the 4th of April 2003. Now Kurathy has also been revived and added in this group and a full Desi concert has been given at the famous Athachamayam festival of Tripunithura.
Polikali is the invocation dance in which the danseuse prays to goddess Bhagavathy and wishes happiness and prosperity to the whole community and the three worlds.
These are a few lines from an old Poli song, used for the dance choreographed at Natana Kaisiki.
Polika Polika Bhagavathiye
Polika Polika Sri Parvathiye
Kali Polika Neeli Polika
Rudra Polika Karumari Polika
Melokam Polika Polika
Keezh Lokam Polika Polika
Bhulokam Polika Polika
Taymakkal Polika Polika
The second item could be Kurathy where the danseuse introduces herself as Kurathy.
Mayam Kurathy Njane
Mayam Kurathy Njane
Mayam Kurathy Vishnu Mayam Kurathy Njane.
Kai Noky Kury Chollum Kuravanchy Njanamma
Kailasa Malayerum Kuravanchy Njanamma
(I am the Vishnu Maya, the Mohini, I do palm reading etc. Then she talks about the story of Vishnu becoming Mohini and attracting Sri Parameswara, how Ayyappa was born and so on)
The concept of Kurathy is, the danseuse introduces herself as Kurathy and talks about their community and "kula thozhil"(traditional duties). This sort of dance has been described even in the Sangham literature. For example, Chilapathikaram talks about Vettuva Vari - the dance of the Vettuva community.
The third item is Easal, in which two danseuses will enter as Lakshmy Kurathy and Parvathy Kurathy and dance together. They start making fun of the opposite number and have a row. Towards the end of this dance the Kurathys feel ashamed of their behavior and decide to make up with each other and become friends. This is called Easal.
Lakshmy: O, Great lady, your beloved had killed the Elephant, is it to take the skin?
(Because Shiva wears the skin)
Parvathy: So, I heard that the great elephant Kumbhi of Kamsa's durbar had been killed to take the tusk (the story of Krishna fighting with Kumbhi enacted here).
Lakshmy: What happened to the little deer of your husband? Is it dead or still alive?
Parvathy: With bow and arrow, he went behind the deer and killed it (Mareecha's story enacted here).
Lakshmy: Is it because your husband has no clothes, he is wearing skin?
Parvathy: Even though he doesn't have any clothes, he has never stolen other ladies' clothes (Here the stealing of the gopikas' clothes is enacted elaborately).
Then the lines say that “talking about our husbands this way is not at all right on our parts, it is a shame. Let us not fight any more, let's be friends”.
On closer look you can see in the beginning the Shaiva Vaishnava cult having an encounter and later on the amalgamation of these two cults without much problems.
Poli is the invocation dance. In this the danseuse prays to the goddess and requests her to be present everywhere. Then finally she wishes good luck to every one around especially the devotees and those who are supposed to be the children of the Mother Goddess. It is noteworthy to see that the present day Cholkettu also start with a Devi Sthuti. In the Poli, the Devi is described as Kali, Neeli, Rudra, Karumari etc. those very ancient forms of the female Goddess while the present day Cholkettu Sthuti describes her as the one whose form is within the Vedas, the one who resides in the mind of sages, the one who is the pure truth, the one who gives moksha (salvation) etc.
From these, it is clear that by this time the society has changed, new ideas and thoughts have come into being, the rituals and worship also have developed into new patterns even though the strong worship of Mother Goddess's influence carried on. In olden days in Kerala, temples were known as Kavu's or groves. But by 7th or 8th centuries, strong temples with stone and wood started developing in Kerala. Scholars are of the opinion that this is the time the Devadasi cult also would have been introduced in the temples of Kerala.
Chandanam is another item in the Desi repertoire. In the course of the performance the danseuse with receptacle containing sandal wood paste (made up to the correct consistency and scented) in her hand, dances her way into the audience and places a ceremonial mark with the sandal paste on the foreheads of those who offer donations of money. This was the Chandanam performed during 1930's and was considered as a very corrupt dance of those days. But a detailed study on this aspect gives many clues to establish that some ritualistic aspect was connected with this item. For example in many ritual dances of Kerala, especially connected with the Kavu culture, at the end of the performance the person who acts like the goddess finally gives Prasadam and in return the devotees give Kanikka / Dakshina to the actor or dancer who enacts the Devi / Kurathy. Ritualistic elements like this later on lost its divinity and became very deteriorated.
The song talks about the great magical power of the chandanam or sandal paste, how it could be used to get rid of fever, love sickness etc.
Kurathiyattam is still a ritual dance form in many temples of Kerala. And the major portions are the same as the above mentioned items Poli, Easal, Chandanam, and Kurathy. So what we could gather from all these is that when the Devadasi tradition came to Kerala, it became a part of the dance form of the danseuses of Kerala of that age. Later on due to social reasons, the Devadasi system went out of the temple but Kuratiyattam, our old ritualistic dance is still a part of the temple rituals in Kerala especially during yearly festivals.
This gives a rough idea of the origins of Mohiniyattam and its development through the centuries. The findings and studies might help to understand the development of the female dance forms of Kerala at various stages, from the Kavu cult to the present day temple culture.
Natana Kaisiki, the Mohiniyattam Dept. of Natana Kairali, Irinjalakuda
The three items yet to be ready are Kurathy, Mukkuthy and Kummy. Among these Kurathy is almost ready and practices are going on in the Natana Kaisiki Mohiniyattam Kalari. The Kurathy item is very old, Vari Kuthu for example.
As far as Mukkuthy is considered, studies are still going on and some of the spiritual gurus are of the opinion that searching for the Mukuthy has some inner meaning and also connected with the nose ring of the Goddess. One of the gurus said this could be the beginning of the Jeevatma Paramatma concept because moksha is compared to muthu or a precious stone. Due to decadence of the art form, the inner meaning and divine connection is lost. To bring back the traditional values a thorough study is needed.
Nirmala Paniker is the director of Natana Kaisiki, the institute dedicated to the research and revival of Mohiniattam. She is a Mohiniattam and Nangiarkoothu exponent and a scholar. She has written several books, including Mudras in Kathakali, and Classical Dance Tradition in Nangiars. She and her husband G Venu have recorded the elaborate hand gestures and eye expressions of the dance forms in dance notation and on video, and researched their origins and interpretations in Vedic and Agamic literature.