No account of the dances of India would be complete without a mention of one of the most graceful styles of classical dancing – the Mohini Attam.
Surprisingly enough it was only recently that this form, together with Kuchipudi and Orissi, were discovered and exhibited on the urban stages of India, exploding the theory that classical Indian dancing consisted only of four styles: Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Kathak.
Mohini Attam, or the dance of the Enchantress, is believed to have originated from the dance portrayed by Mohini, the feminine incarnation of Vishnu, in order to lure the demon king Bhasmasura into self-destruction. Mohini Attam, it is said, was born out of the union of Kathakali and Bharatanatyam and other secular folk dances performed by the women of Kerala during festive occasions. This synthesis substantiates the opinion of scholars that in Indian traditional art there is very little distinction between the classical and folk styles.
However, in spite of this confusing admixture, there is no denying that Mohini Attam not only has a distinctive classical individuality but also can exist on its own as an independent dance form. In this context it should be pointed out that it is generally believed that the present form of this dance was evolved in the court of King Swati Tirunal, who with the help of his ‘Vidwans’, particularly that of Vadivelu (one of the famous Tanjore Quartet) who was residing in his court, refined and gave form to a highly exciting style.
This was probably done to fill a vacuum that had been created between the highly ritualistic dances of the temple and the secular forms of dance prevalent outside. Or may be because in both the above mentioned forms, women were barred from participating, it was felt that a gentle feminine style should be evolved out of existing, amorphous forms so that women dancers could use it for entertaining royalty and the court.
Here again, there is a sharp difference of opinion amongst critics and scholars. Some of them believe that Mohini Attam goes back to the days of the Silappadikaram, if not before, while others maintain that it came into being a century before Swati Tirunal.
During the British regime, Mohini Attam was consigned to oblivion like all our other dance styles and would have been forgotten if it had not been for the grand old dames of Mohini Attam like Kalpuratte Kunjakutty Amma, Tottacheri Chinnammuamma and Kalyani Kuttiyamma Krishnan Nair who jealously preserved the art in the villages. However it is to Mahakavi Vallathol that we owe an immense debt of gratitude for persuading these great dancers to come out of their premature retirement and teach this wonderful style to the young students at his Kala Mandalam.
We also have to be deeply grateful to the eminent dancer, Shanta Rao, who gave performances of the style, both on national and international stages and drew attention to it. Other dancers like the late Chandrabagha Devi of Karnataka, and Mrinalini Sarabhai began to include Mohini Attam items in their programmes. However it is Kanak Rele of Mumbai, who through her school Nalanda, is doing intensive research in this form and has been able to reconstruct a number of items that have almost been forgotten.
Like all other dance forms, Mohini Attam has a rich literary background. As a matter of fact, one colourful legend connects it with the dance of Mohini, the beautiful enchantress, the incarnation of Vishnu who came out of the milky ocean when it was being churned by the gods and demons in order to obtain amrita, the nectar of immortality, for themselves. Another legend claims that it was derived from the dance performed by Mohini to lure the demon king Basmasura into destroying himself by placing his hand on his head, for had he not been given the boon by Lord Shiva of being able to reduce to ashes any object or being that he touched!
We do not know how these legends came into being but we do know through historical evidence that Kerala has a curious mixture of Dravidian and Aryan cultures and the mingling of Nair and Namboodri blood has given us not only the powerful and ritualistic dance-dramas of Kathakali but also the graceful Mohini Attam which has been described not only as the blooming of the flower of Malayalee genius but also as one of the most perfect lasya styles of Indian dancing.
The technique of Mohini Attam is based on the tenets laid down by Bharatha’s Natya Sastra and Nandikesvara’s Abhinaya Darpana. Like other classical dance styles of India, it consists of nritta (pure dance), nritya (expressional dance) and abhinaya (mime) which is further divided into the angika, the vachika, the aharya and the sativika forms.
The predominant characteristic of Mohini Attam is the ‘revolution’ – a movement of the body consisting of rotation and swaying with rounded and graceful movements and a walk or gait which consists of graceful ‘bobbing’ up and down.
The nritta of Mohini Attam follows the same pattern as Bharatanatyam with the basic unit known as adavu or kalasam made up of sthanaka (posture), chari (movement), and nritta mudras (hand movements without meaning). The body posture is reminiscent of Kathakali with the feet apart and the body in a sitting posture, rotating and swaying. The adavu patterns conclude with the teermanam, sometimes simple and sometimes complex.
In nritya and abhinaya, both the hastas of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali are used – the asamyutha or the single-handed gestures, the samyutha (double-handed gestures) and misra (a combination of both hastas). The abhinaya is essentially secular and is usually in the ‘Lokadharmi’ style. Basically the nayika is a devotee yearning for union with God or the nayaka but the interpretation by the dancer is purely subjective and depicts an ordinary woman pining for her lover. Hence more often than not the items of Mohini Attam repertoire are coquettish and earthy.
This in a way is an advantage because the exponent of Mohini Attam, unlike the Bharatanatyam dancer who has to constantly endeavour to be objective, can be as subjective as she wants to be and can establish an immediate rapport with the audience.
The repertoire of a Mohini Attam performance is almost the same as that of Bharatnatyam’s Sadir Katcheri or solo performance indicating perhaps the influence of the Tanjore Quartet on the format. Instead of the invocatory Alarippu, we have the Chollukattu, praising at first the Bhagawan and then Lord Shiva and Rama. It is really a combination of the Sabdam and the Alarippu of Bharatanatyam. It is said that before the advent of the Tanjore brothers, Bharatanatyam also had a similar Chollukattu. The Chollukattu is followed by the Jatiswaram and then the Pada jatis, if any, are not chanted separately but are incorporated into the main melody of the Varnam. Padams and kritis in all South Indian languages and also in Sanskrit abound in this style are ‘enacted’ with lyrical abandon. The tillana, the javalis and slokas are also part of the programme.
The Mohini Attam costume is simple and is a highly glamorous version of the traditional garb of the Malayalee woman. The hairstyle is also characteristic of the region and the usual jewels are worn – the head ornaments, heavy ear-rings, bracelets, etc. The saree is invariably white with a gold border and the entire ensemble is simple, elegant and uncluttered. The musical content of Mohini Attam is almost the same as that of Bharatanatyam, being based on Carnatic music with the difference that sometimes, particularly in the abhinaya items, the Sopana style (basic melody) of Kathakali with its slow tempo is used.
In the olden days, the dancer was led on to the stage by the Asan or the teacher and followed by her band of musicians who also did some dance movements behind her.
Mohini Attam is essentially a solo dance, but sometimes two or more dancers perform together, especially in items like Kummi or Kaikottakali. A kind of drum called the Topi Maddalam, the Mukhayeena or a version of the flute and the talam are used.
It is strange that when witnessing a Mohini Attam performance, one feels at first, that it is a synthesis of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, but one soon abandons this idea and begins to look upon Mohini Attam as a completely different dance form with a graceful charm and characteristics of its own. Perhaps Mohini Attam is the answer to the modern dancer’s prayer for a form that is free of religious connotations and the rigid formalism of a traditional art, allowing her more freedom to convey her own emotions through a purely visual medium of rhythmic movement to a secular-minded and rational audience which wants to be charmed by the poetry of movement without delving too deeply into the mysteries of abstract thought.