In step with tradition
- Shereen Saif
Photo courtesy Natanakairali

January 4, 2016

The verdant campus of Natanakairali, Kerala’s foremost research, training and performing center for traditional arts founded by eminent Kutiyattam exponent Venu G, came alive on the evening of 27th December 2015 as the culturally rich town of Irinjalakuda prepared to witness the highly anticipated arangetram of upcoming Mohiniattam artist Parvathy Sreevallabhan.  Hardly a debutant, Parvathy had previously performed at the Soorya Festival 2011, Swaralaya Festival 2011, Thanjavur centenary festival and Mohini Nrithyathi among others but this was her first full-length traditional recital.

The audience was welcomed with flowers and a handful of sweetened parched rice and ushered into a humble thatched roof auditorium. Lit with traditional lamps and decorated with tender coconut leaves and strands of flowers, the setting had a lovely old-world charm. Arangetrams these days tend to be grand affairs with all its fuss and paraphernalia, but this one in all respects was refreshing in its simplicity.

The recital got off to an auspicious start with the Ganesha stuti rendered by Neelamperur Suresh Kumar. He was accompanied on the maddalam by Kalanilayam Prakasan, Kalanilayam Ramakrishnan on the idakka, Irinjalakuda Vishakan on the flute and Sri Murali on the veena.

The young Mohiniattam dancer took to the stage with an age-old traditional Cholkettu in Shankarabharanam ragam. This was followed by a vibrant Jatiswaram. In both the introductory pieces, Parvathy proved her prowess in pure nritta through her refined spatial geometry, footwork and sculpturesque movements brimming with lasya. The varnam that followed was a true 40-minute piece de resistance in praise of Lord Shiva. The narrative held the audience’s rapt attention through stories that extolled his multi-facets. From the annihilation of Kamadeva, to the episode where Neelkantha is forced to receive the Kalakootha poison, to an exposition of the Lord’s many bhavas and his cosmic dance, Parvathy’s every movement and expression flowed with ease and conviction. As the music faded, it appeared as if the dancer had entered a blissful trance. 

Instead of a padam, the artist chose to perform Devadevam divyaprabhavam, a keertanam in Hindolam that spoke of the virtues of Lord Rama and about how the asura king Ravana become his sworn enemy after the abduction of Sita Devi. The dancer’s abhinaya took on a mature shade and touched the hearts of the audience.

The thillana in Kapi ragam celebrated the sheer joy of dance while the Geeta Govindam slokam that followed was a kaleidoscope of moods and visual imagery as the dancer expertly depicted the 10 avatars of Vishnu.The Narasimha avatar, in particular, was arresting. Using abhinaya techniques from Kutiyattam, Parvathy portrayed the insatiable rage of the half-lion, half-man incarnation and created a powerful image of gore.

The culminating piece was a rare Saptam. In folklore tradition, it is believed that the Bhagavathy is born as a kurathi, a fortuneteller who goes from village to village narrating stories from the Indian mythology. In this piece, the dancer as kurathi describes the miraculous birth of Ayyapan through the union of Lord Shiva and Vishnu in his most desirable Mohini form. The recital came to a close with a Mangalam in praise of Sangameshwara, the presiding deity of Irinjalakuda Koodalmaanikkyam temple. 

The choreographic credit for all the pieces except the keertanam goes to Guru Nirmala Paniker who also played the nattuvangam at the recital. The keertanam is the artistic contribution of Kapila Venu, a renowned Kutiyattam artist and daughter of Guru Nirmala Paniker.

Parvathy’s arangetram is the culmination of 12 years of rigorous training under the pedagogic methodology developed by Guru Nirmala Paniker at Natanakaisiki Mohiniyatta Gurukulam, the Mohiniattam wing of Natanakairali. The movement vocabulary adheres to Guru Kalyanikutti Amma’s bani of Mohiniattam. But what made the performance potent was the powerful hasta and netrabhinaya, inspired from Kutiyattam and made appropriate for Mohiniattam by Nirmala Paniker.

Staying rooted to tradition, the recital also explored the possibilities and myriad shades that Mohiniattam could assume. In this respect as well, it was a class apart. 

Shereen Saif is a dancer, theatre professional, creative movement advocate and PR consultant based in Dubai. She is a Mohiniattam disciple of Dr. Neena Prasad and pursues her training in traditional theatre techniques under veteran Kuttiyattam exponent Venu G.