Mohiniyattam in its traditional glory 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur   

January 12, 2006 

Dr. Deepti Omchery Bhalla, a Keralite based in Delhi, has a mission to fulfill. A singular blend of singer, dancer, researcher and author, she is struggling to enhance Mohiniyattam with its true glory as practiced in the courts of kings like Swathi Thirunal. "We need to use typical Kerala ragas, thalas and percussion accompaniments to stamp the exclusive Kerala style on this female classical solo dance," says Deepti who believes the present mixing robs Mohiniyattam of its uniqueness. 

The temples of Kerala had the tradition of ritual practices associated with women. Nangyarkoothu, the solo performance of a woman dancer, is still a 41-day ritual in the Siva temple of Vadakkunnathan that coincides with Saraswathi puja. Born of such a tradition, nurtured by Koodiyattam, the 2000 year old Sanskrit theater, dance performance in Kerala is more rooted in nrittya than nritta. Attuned to sopana sangeetam and percussion dominant music, the Keralites have evolved a cultural rhythm of their own. Slow in tempo, maybe in harmony with its geographical feature of long coast line of swaying palms that looks on the dancing waves, Mohiniyattam is noted for its lasya. Swaying in circles and semi-circles, the dancers recall Ravi Varma paintings in costume, and in expressions.

During the time of Swathi Thirunal, Mohiniyattam entered the palace in all its glory. The king, a doyen of all classical arts, and poets like Irayimman Thampi did a lot to enhance Mohiniyattam. Then during the foreign rule, the missionaries who could not understand the Indian concept of temple dance undermined all the temple arts all over India. And Mohiniyattam disappeared from the cultural scene. Later the poet Vallathol founded Kerala Kalamandalam to revive the traditional art forms. With Kathakali, Mohiniyattam too resurrected from the dead ashes. Owing to ill reputation and being a female solo, social acceptance came for it rather late. And innovations, attempted by Bharatanatyam dancers, have affected the purity of Mohiniyattam. Deepti wants to hand over the baton to the next generation who has to do justice to the glory and the true spirit of Mohiniyattam.

Deepti's performance 
Deepti's choreography, music by Leela Omchery and accompaniments edakka, veena, and mridangam made her performance distinctive. Grounded in Kathakali, her recital was refined and elegant. The first item, Sabda chali was an 800 year old composition. Highlighting sounds of the language and an exceptional singing style, the theme was eulogizing various aspects of Ganapathy. 

The second item was 'Vathil thura pattu,' a javali composed by Kutti Kunji Thankachi, the sister of the celebrated poet, Irayimman Thampi. The song was in ragamalika set to Adi tal. Deepti is the first dancer to attempt a javali in Mohiniyattam. As in other south Indian dances, the dancer portrays a khanditha nayika. But, here she is noble at heart; she accepts the all-embracing love of her Lord. 

The third item, a padam by Swathi Thirunal used a rare raga, Poorvakambodiri. The   Samvadam between the lovelorn nayika and her sakhi who betrayed her trust are two facets of womanhood.

The rendering of the story of the unfulfilled-love of Malikapurathamma was fitting to the season of Mandala puja in Kerala. She tells her sad tale to the trees and plants, to the birds and animals of the mountains. When Ayyappa delivered a demoness from her curse, the beautiful maiden fell in love with him. Ayyappa promised to marry her the day when a new pilgrim does not reach his forest shrine. Year after year, she waited with her bridal garland for the promised occasion, and now after ages, here is another deity made by endless pilgrims.  The piece was in Saveri raga, set to thripuda tal.

The last item, Ardhanariswaram is an old poem of unknown authorship set in raga madyamavati.  This beautiful piece, on the blending of male - female principles, takes the audience on the wings of a devotee to Kailash, the home of Siva and Parvati. Its rich devotional strain is typical of Indian traditions.

Deepti's elevated style, restraint and subtlety made the performance an aesthetic treat. From another angle, her recital addressed her concern to have an exclusive Kerala dance form. Perhaps Kerala is a unique state where women and their ethos get prominence whether in social or cultural spheres. For a female classical solo, a talented dancer with a strong sense of music and depth in the Kerala musical instruments has to take up the torch from Deepti in the next lap to perfect and popularize Mohiniyattam on its classical lines.

Bharatham, a cultural organization in the cultural capital of Kerala, is doing service in addressing such concerns for public awareness. 

Padma Jayaraj is a regular contributor to