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Mohiniyattam exponent Vijayalakshmi on her UCLA Regents' Lecturer Program
- Sudha Prakash

February 28, 2020

Vijayalakshmi is a globally acclaimed exponent of Mohiniyattam, the graceful classical dance form from South India. She is also a celebrated choreographer, singer, writer and speaker. She is the founder director of Mohiniyattam Institute, Los Angeles and Artistic-Director of the Center for Mohiniyattam, New Delhi. Her unique interpretation of the dance form resonates with contemporary universal relevance, delving deeply into femininity and beyond. Vijayalakshmi grew up imbibing a deep knowledge of this traditional dance form which is the dance of the divine enchantress. She trained under her mother-guru Bharati Shivaji who is the principal architect, involved in the revival and re-construction of Mohiniyattam ensuring its rightful place both on the national and international map. Using this substantial training as her foundation, Vijayalakshmi developed her own vision for this art form through her own insight and exploration of the form's aesthetic principles and lexicon, with her path breaking innovative choreography and interpretation, using contemporary subjects without digressing from the essence of this traditional art form. She has performed at major venues around the globe. Her long and distinguished body of work in dance is a testament to her artistic caliber and eminence.

Her work with Mohiniyattam has been significant in bringing this art form to the notice of Academia and Indologists around the world and for them to recognize it as a major dance form of India. So it is no surprise that she was selected recently for the prestigious Regents' Professors and Lecturers program at the University of California (UCLA) for 2019-20. The following is a phone interview with Vijayalakshmi after she successfully completed her Regents' Lecturer program at UCLA this month.

Can you tell us about the Regents' Lecturer program at UCLA and your experience this winter teaching at UCLA?
This is a big honor not just for me as an artiste, but for Mohiniyattam as a dance form and for India itself. This coveted program brings distinguished speakers who have pursued careers outside of academia in arts, science, business, writing and other professions to enrich the student body at the university. This program has had a distinguished litany of personalities such as James Baldwin, Sandra Day O'Connor, Sally Ride, VS Naipaul, Yo-Yo Ma, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. I am deeply humbled to join this exceptional league.

I was honored to showcase this traditional dance form to the UCLA faculty, students and the general public on February 2nd, sponsored by the Fowler Museum and Center for India and South Asian Studies, UCLA. The generously attended event enthralled the audience with the technique, idiom and theatric expressions extolling the divine feminine. A reception was held in my honor after the event, followed by a Q and A with Prof. Anurima Banerji about the history, evolution and significance of Mohiniyattam in today's world view.

During my public lecture at the Kaufman Hall, I made the audience aware that Mohiniyattam is not only a unique dance form rooted in the feminine, but holds great relevance to women across all ages and cultures and to the entire global society in terms of women empowerment. And because it is rooted so deeply in femininity, the characteristic movements are very soft and graceful, also epitomizing inherent strength. To me it is not just a traditional sacred dance form, but reflects my own journey and understanding of femininity as a woman. My residency at UCLA involved a two week period of teaching Mohiniyattam and advanced choreography to undergraduate/graduate students at the UCLA World Arts Cultures dance department. It was gratifying to receive a greatly appreciative response from the students. Their enthusiasm and involvement inspires me a great deal to continue my journey as a teacher and performer, and in taking this art form to greater heights.

Tell us about your institute in Los Angeles and training of the American youth.
I established The Mohiniyattam Institute in LA with the objective of widening the audience for it and presenting it at mainstream venues and international festivals, where it is acknowledged as a major Indian dance form and receives widespread recognition. Also, my years of experience in performance, training and presentation, enables me to foster a greater international presence for the dance form.

Currently I am training 15-20 students in this art form, many of whom have been groomed rigorously, and have had the opportunity to perform with me. A major objective is to also create a professional troupe of dancers for the Institute. Besides performing and teaching, I have also been pursuing speaking engagements, speaking on a wide range of issues such as femininity and its role in society, art and spirituality.

It's not just a traditional sacred dance form that evolved in the temples of Kerala, but as a unique Indian classical dance form, rooted in the feminine principle, resonates with great contemporary relevance, epitomizing values that can inspire and impact our lives in a direct and tangible way.

What is your vision of Mohiniyattam moving forward?
My vision is to make Mohiniyattam a globally known dance form, which is recognized for its unique, rich and versatile idiom, and its major relevance to femininity. I have pushed the traditional boundaries of the dance form through my productions, and will continue to pursue that. My first choreographic work 'Unniarcha' was path breaking. The concept was inspired from the story of a real life historical figure in Kerala whose name is the title of this work and who was celebrated for her valor and courage. Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art form of Kerala was integrated with Mohiniyattam in this presentation and received an overwhelming response. In my other choreographic work 'Swan Lake', inspired from celebrated Russian composer Tchaikovsky's music, the idea was to bring two great traditions - Indian classical dance and Western classical music - into a seamless whole. This work has been acknowledged as a milestone in the realm of Indian classical dance, and I had the rare honor of performing it at the prestigious Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, besides other major festivals around the world.

At present, I am working on a collaborative production involving a group of noted artistes from India and the U.S. encompassing a diverse range of art forms and musical genres, exploring the 'Sacred feminine' principle that is present in the major cultures of the world, and which prevailed before the establishment of major patriarchal world religions. Collaborators will include LA based artiste, Oscar winner Yuval Ron, eminent vocalist Wasifuddin Dagar, and acclaimed Hollywood composer Mac Quayle, besides various South Asian musicians. This will premiere in Los Angeles, and will be presented in India and internationally. I see a great future for Mohiniyattam in the U.S. and beyond in the coming years, and I am happy to be a part of this exponential journey.

Contact Vijayalakshmi:

Sudha Prakash is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles and has been writing about art, culture and social happenings in the greater Los Angeles area for many years. Through her writing she wants to spread awareness about Indian arts and culture in the Western United States.

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