by Dr. Kanak Rele
(Natya Kala Conference 2000)

Apr 2001

The Dance is called the mother of arts. Any art can be termed as the most important expression of the aesthetic consciousness of an individual or a society. An artistic creation is the external manifestation of an inner urge, a tangible exposition of the intangible creative impulse.

The aesthetic appreciation of an art implies an effective presentation, an integrated end product of the two components - content and form.

Content represents the meaning of the artistic endeavour. Form is the vehicle by which this meaning is brought out. Neither of these two can gain ascendancy; neither can overstep its defined function. The content of any art form presupposes its place in life and thought of the particular society in which it exists. From times immemorial, art had come to be recognized as an important activity of man by the Indian thinkers. There is evidence of metaphysical speculations on matters concerning art. The most important of these speculations concerned the relationship between form and content.

Any creative activity which projects the material form of an art is thought to be impelled by the creative instinct; creation proceeding from the unformed to the formed. But creativity and creation are never two individual entities; there was no dichotomy between the two. The intrinsic realization and knowledge always presupposes external or formal manifestation. There is no knowledge possible without the formal utterance of the same. This, in fact, is the creative process of art. The formal part of an art exhibits human skill and virtuosity but, at the same time, art expression is also the direct result of human thought and beliefs. It is a beautiful product of human imagination. Man's knowledge gives rise to art activity. Ideas and themes become transformed or translated into activities of the actual process of living. The artiste then analyses these ideas from all the angles to be eventually retranslated in terms of line, space, volume, pattern, design, image, symbol etc., giving rise to the symbolic representations of a particular idea and its attributed meaning by the artiste.

This art-thought or what can better be called the spirit or essence of art automatically separates art originating out of creative skill, from art originating out of mere technical or formal virtuosity. Creative art involves the use of ideas and imagination; skillful art implies reproduction by mechanical but well formalized methods. The chief attributes of the creative art are aesthetic experience and creative force.

Content, generally speaking, is what constitutes the meaning of art, explicit and implicit, direct and indirect. The manner and method by which the meaning is brought forth is its form, which is as varied and as inexhaustive as content itself. Without the content, any art form would prove to be a futile exercise. Form brings forth the content. Any piece of art where form overreaches itself and assumes a more obvious and emphatic role, would be considered to be a failure. Content and form contribute two irreplaceable components or art, neither being permitted to transcend the other and to get the upper hand.

This content, being the product of an artiste's intellectual and emotional exercise, very naturally depends on the social conditions under which the artiste breathes and functions. Since content has to be natural and deals with the human being as such, it cannot vary significantly from society to society, era to era. Form varies from people to people though content may be the same or more or less the same.

Each artistic creation and presentation is motivated by an underlying predominant idea, designed to create a specific reaction in the spectator. In a society where the emphasis shifts from depersonalized empirical statement of artistic motivation to the artiste and its success depends almost entirely on the artiste's virtuosity and capacity to establish the required level of rapport with his beholder. Then, the artistic endeavour gets tied down by time and place and environment. Here the relevance is extremely limited. But in a society where it is the artistic endeavour at the depersonalized empirical level that reigns supreme, an unbroken chain of tradition is established. The personal motivation of an artistic endeavour has been already laid down for him. This idea once again is not the creation of a single mind or even a group of minds or even the total intelligentsia of a given society of a given period. Rather, it is the cumulative product of generations of ideas, beliefs and norms springing out of the socio-ethnology of a people. It indicates truly depersonalized and yet intensely human artistic endeavour. And specially when the religious beliefs and their attendant symbolism prove to be the force, the art bursts all the bonds of time and place and becomes truly timeless.

It is here that an artiste also becomes totally free and yet utterly disciplined. The aesthetics of his chosen idiom are determined by no one in particular, but by the society of which he himself is a child, an integral part. The form of the artistic idiom has evolved out of the central idea, to give the most appropriate and aesthetically pleasing, tangible manifestation to the intangible. He is set completely and truly free to devote his entire force of energy, virtuosity and creativity to his art: he is set free from the binding shackles of his art so that he can focus his energy towards the soul of the art in a state of complete absorption.

He is not concerned with the impression that he is creating: his concentration is not disturbed by the deep underlying concern of either being understood and accepted or misunderstood and rejected. He is not in doubt regarding the relevance of his idea; and since the idea and its resultant tangible form are totally homogenous artistic utterances of his society, rather than himself, there is no danger of rejection of either his art or he himself.

Since form is variable, it has to be so, it is easier to experiment with it. Once the established norms and tenets are observed, mastered and tabularized, it is easy to innovate. Of course the form of any dance depends on its kinetics so far as physical movements are concerned and on its kineaesthetics so far as its overall impact- both spiritual and emotional is concerned.

It is in the light of what has been stated that I have experimented or rather innovated to expand the fundamental content of Mohini Attam. The standard Mohini Attam repertoire, until very recently, relied very heavily on the writings of Maharaja Svati Tirunal. This tendency gave an overwhelmingly monotonous look to the dance performances. The items, by and large, would represent, the classic virahotkanthita nayika representing the “jeevatma” pining to be re-united with the “nayaka” representing “paramaatma” or the deity who was always Lord Padmanabha i.e. Vishnu. Now Mohini Attam has never been bound totally by the temple-oriented aesthetics. Rather it tended to lean towards secularism.

Mohini is the “avatara” of Vishnu and represents the woman in her most enchanting but assertive form. Thus Mohini Attam has to be aesthetically enchanting as well as emotionally ennobling - befitting the concept of Vishnu who dances the dance of enchantment only to vanquish the evil designs of the aggressive “danavas”.

This has opened up a very vast vista of emotional conditions that can be tapped, analysed and harnessed to project the woman in her myriad forms - purely shringaric, spiritually surrendering to the deity, an avenging fury out to right the injustices done to her or in the most ennobling image leading to “shanta” or tranquility.

I have understood Mohini Attam to be an “Ode to Womanhood” and have created within this tradition, in accordance with the conditions and sensibilities of my society and the times in which I exist. Yet I have not transgressed Bharata's dictum of presenting only the “puranas”, “kathas” and “itihasas” so as to make my art universal.
Kanak Rele is one of the most distinguished scholars of India. For the past 30 years she has ceaselessly strived to rejuvenate Mohiniattam of Kerala and for introducing new and richer dimensions to the field of academics and research in classical dancing through her institute Nalanda Dance Research Center which has been officially recognized by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Govt of India. A highly acclaimed exponent, she has given solo and group performances all over the world. She is a qualified lawyer who has done research in International Law at the University of Manchester in UK. Trained initially from a very young age in Kathakali from Guru ‘Panchali' Karunakara Panikkar, Kanak has won high acclaim for her Kathakali as well. For the past 15 years, she is collaborating with noted Kerala scholar Kavalam Narayana Panikkar who has done deep research in ‘music and tala' tradition of Sopana Sangeetam.