Compiled by Lalitha Venkat
Kalyanikutty Amma was born in 1915 in Tirunavaya in the Malappuram district of Kerala to orthodox parents Panangad Govinda Menon and Karingamana Sreedevi Amma. One of 6 children, she was a tomboy in her childhood and youth, took part in sports and even tried yoga and kalaripayattu. At the same time, she was keenly interested in literary pursuits, especially study of Sanskrit. As a young girl, she wrote poems and short stories in Malayalam under the name of Karingavanam Kalyanikutty. Since dance was not a favored artistic field, she did not even see any dance performance till she went to Kalamandalam.
Vallathol Narayana Menon had founded Kalamandalam with Manakkulam Mukunda Raja in 1930. In the face of severe opposition from conservatives, he managed to introduce a course in Mohiniattam in 1932 to popularize its beauty and artistry.
In 1937, Kalyanikutty Amma went to Kalamandalam to take reference from the Sanskrit manuscripts, in order to pass an exam and qualify to become a teacher. She was then 22 years of age, adventurous and determined to be independent. The one Mohiniattam student Thankamani had left to get married and Vallathol, who was also a family friend, saw this as an opportunity to rekindle public interest in the art form and make it respectable for girls to take up dance again. He invited Kalyanikutty Amma to enroll for dance lessons. She was a rebel of her times and she joined willingly.
Already having a bent for poetry and music, she now entered the world of classical dance, a world of beauty, bhakti and grace. This paved the way for 4 more girls to enroll and was eventually an impetus for the development of Mohiniattam. Krishna Panicker Asan who was then 78, was a hard task master. The training was rigorous, starting at 3am every morning and ending at 9pm, but Kalyanikutty Amma took up the challenge and blossomed from a plump girl into a graceful dancer. She had her arangetram in 1939 to a select audience. Kalyanikutty Amma had training in Kathakali also from Pattikamthodi Ravunni Menon and performed with him a couple of times.
She had entered the dance field purely by accident, but was now totally immersed in the learning of this once disreputable dance form, striving now to gain respectability in society. Her vocation caused a rift in her relations with her family, but with the courage of her convictions, she never looked back.
While under training in Kalamandalam, Kalyanikutty Amma met the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair who was a Kathakali artiste and teacher there. They fell in love and married in 1940. Since marriage among school members was not encouraged, they kept the matter secret for a year and left Kalamandalam that year end.
Now called Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, she started teaching Mohiniattam from 1941. She taught for a year in Guru Gopinath’s school, followed by a 3-year stint as a housewife. Kalyanikutty Amma and Krishnan Nair moved to different places, finally founding their own dance school Kerala Kalalayam in 1952 where different teachers taught Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam, music and mridangam. In 1954, Kalyanikutty Amma also taught for a while in Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad, but had to return home to her young children - 2 daughters and 5 sons. In 1958, the family shifted to Tripunithura.
In the same year, on his deathbed, Vallathol expressed his hope that while he had introduced reforms in Mohiniattam and eliminated the inappropriate items, he entrusted Kalyanikutty Amma with the vision to secure for Mohiniattam, its pride of place in the art world. Since much of the repertoire of Mohiniattam had been lost, Kalyanikutty Amma conducted a lot of research work and based on it, she introduced many steps and mudras and restructured Mohiniattam into a systematic pattern. Kalyanikutty Amma believed that the essence of Mohiniattam was devotion.
The origin of Mohiniattam has been traced to the Dasiattam developed by the devadasis, in Kerala temples in the past. Kalyanikutty Amma and her daughter Sreedevi conducted a lot of research on the Chera, Chola and Pandya periods, tracing the antiquity of Dasiattam, Thevidichiattam and Sadirattam. She believed firmly that the Natya Sastra and Abhinaya Darpana hold good for the theory of Mohiniattam except for the hastamudras, which follow the technicalities explained in the Hastalakshna Deepika.
She read books on history, visited old temples where the dance forms had been performed and even interviewed some descendents of the devadasis. She reformed the recital in Mohiniattam with seven different sets of items. She choreographed chari-s, more adavus that she divided into four groups as Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram. She reconstructed the Saptham.
She composed cholkettu, jatiswarams, varnams, padams, slokams, sapthams and tillanas in Malayalam in suitable ragas to bring out the lasya and bhakti of Mohiniattam. She introduced the use of Navarasas. She composed many slokas and kritis as well as 80 stanzas on the technique of Mohiniattam. She conducted seminars and workshops, and performed Mohiniattam all over India.
Kalyanikutty Amma believed that ‘Balaramabharatam’ written by Kartikai Tirunal Balarama Varma was a work useful to all dancers, not only those studying Mohiniattam. She wrote two books in Malayalam about Mohiniattam and 4 full-length ballets. She acted in a dozen plays and four Malayalam movies ‘Rarichen Enna Powran’, ‘Asuravithu’, ‘Gandharva Kshetram’ and ‘Randu Mukhangal’.
Kalyanikutty Amma received several titles and awards for her outstanding work in Mohiniattam. Among the prominent ones are the “Kavayithri’ title given by Vallathol (1940), Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship (1974), Kerala Sangeet Natak Academy fellowship (1974), ‘Keerthi Shanku’ title given by Kerala Kalamandalam (1980), ’Nrittapraveena’ title by Kerala Fine Arts Society (1984), Kerala Sahitya Academy award (1985).
The matter of revival and reform of an art form on the verge of extinction is not without controversies. Kalyanikutty Amma trained several students of Mohiniattam in the style she learnt from Krishna Panicker Asan. Her daughters Kala Vijayan and Sreedevi teach Mohiniattam and run their own institutions and many of her grandchildren have also taken to dance.
The grand lady of Mohiniattam passed away on May 12, 1999 at the age of 84.