Mohiniyattam exponent and Guru Smt Nrimala Panikker speaks about Saptham and its significance

Not many have explored the potential of Sapthams in Mohiniyattam which was introduced in the modern Mohiniyattam repertoire by none other than Smt Kalayanikutty Amma hailed as the mother of Mohiniyattam. It is thus not surprising that one of her foremost disciples Smt Nirmala Panikker finds Saptham a great way to present elaborate stories in Mohiniyattam. She recently choreographed and presented through her disciples an Ashtapadi, Dasavatharam in Saptham format following  a 200 year old text: ‘Gitagovindam Nrithyalakshana Sahitham,’ which gives instructions including hand gestures for presenting Gita Govindam through dance.  

Read more: Mohiniyattam exponent and Guru Smt Nrimala Panikker speaks about Saptham and its significance

A tete a tete with Mohiniyattam exponent Bharati Shivaji.


A tete a tete with Mohiniyattam exponent Bharati Shivaji

by Supriya Rajan

The One who followed the call of beauty form the faraway land of Kerala in the 1970s not just to enjoy it but to nurture and enrich the beautiful dance form, Mohiniyattam and showcase it to the world.  Bharati Shivaji has worked tirelessly ever since and her unrelenting efforts have greatly contributed in giving Mohiniyattam its present stature increasing it regional flavour and appeal.

Here is a tete a tete with the maestro that happened in 2010 in my hometown near Kalady where she had come for a concert as part of the dance festival of Sree Sankara School of Dance. My first ever documented interaction with an artiste that remains as a beginning of many such episodes. 

Q: You had a long journey in Mohiniyattam, how has it been so far?

It has been a great journey with many facets. The beginning of the journey was in darkness as I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for. I was groping in the dark. Then slowly things started coming into light. It has been a wonderful experience to tap the soil of Kerala and feel its hidden flavour. It has been a journey of discovery and re-discovery; a divine experience which many people wouldn’t have had. 

Q: You came to Kerala in the 1970’s to work on Mohiniyattam, what was your expectation when you came to Kerala and what was your experience?

I had no expectation to begin with but I had a certain idea about Mohiniyattam, the lasya style of dance. I didn’t know where to look for the lasya element in the region and a major part of my journey was spent in surveying the various facets of the culture and tradition of the region. Then I had to see what I could take to enrich Mohiniyattam by adding more of its own flavour. I was very sure from the beginning that Mohiniyattam needed some embellishment/ enrichment to improve its stature as a dance form. 

Q: During your course of study, has there been any other art form that particularly interested you?

Cant pin point any one art form or any particular element that inspired me. Like how it’s a combination of various ingredients that make a particular taste/flavour (ruchi). The flavour of Kerala lies hidden in the many aspects of its culture and tradition like the temple architecture, musical tradition, sculpture, dance dramas, tala patterns, et al. It is upon a dancer’s sensibility what he or she wants to pick from various sources. 

Q: Do you think some of the traditional art forms need special attention for preserving it?

Most of the traditional art forms of Kerala like the dance drama tradition of Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Krishnantattam et al are very rich, structured and codified. Generally if you see, the audience for classical dance is reducing but that doesn’t mean the art form is dying. They are there still very rich and able to withstand the test of time. Probably this kind of rich art tradition one may not find in any other culture. 

Q: In what way have you been able to enrich Mohiniyattam after your study of the diff aspects of Kerala?

I worked on the adavus (the basic body movements) and started structuring and codifying them. I felt the nritta  aspect of Mohiniyattam has to be given great importance as it is very unique. And secondly the format of Mohiniyattam repertoire had to be re-constructed. It couldn’t survive just on certain usual Padams which was composed many years ago. It needed to be refreshed and so I looked at the rich literary tradition that Kerala has. I thought of adopting from that using my own sensibilities. Here I have to mention that I had the guidance of Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikker to fulfil my desire to give a new, higher stature for Mohiniyattam Nationally and Internationally.

Q: Are u happy with the present status of Mohiniyattam?
Very much. Very happy to see that Mohiniyattam which was always clubbed with Kathakali has now got its own identity and is considered as one of the major classical dance forms of India. 

Q: Considering that Mohiniyattam is a dance form of Kerala do u think there are enough number of Mohiniyattam dancers from Kerala who have made a mark in the National and International level?

Now there are many dancers from Kerala getting recognition because of their good work. Wherever there is good work it will be recognized. Just because you are a Keralite you can’t be excused. You have to prove your worth as an artiste. 

Q: You said the audience for classical dance is reducing, according to you what can be done to improve the situation?

Today the film and pop culture has taken the centre stage. There is lot of scope in Classical Dance to be tapped in and given a Contemporary feel. The beauty of tradition is that it can be modernised. Tradition can be re-intrepreted, re-discovered and re-looked. The human emotions, its intricacies and complexities are so beautifully depicted in our epics that it has tremendous scope for re-interpretation. Similarly in traditional/classical art forms, refreshing changes can be brought about without deviating from tradition. Anything that’s monotonous can become uninteresting. So, one needs to constantly re-invent. The artistes themselves are responsible to create interest in the audience. The new generation has lot of enthusiasm and creative ideas which they should put to good use. One has the freedom to widen the scope of rasa and bhava in the compositions. Not necessary that Mohiniyattam should deal with only lovelorn nayikas. 

Q: Though Mohiniyattam is an indigenous dance form of Kerala, generally the audience in its native land prefer fast moving dance forms like Kuchipudi, your thoughts on it!

I personally feel that every state should promote their art forms. In Tamilnadu or Andhra Pradesh it’s Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi respectively that’s promoted and accepted. Why can’t Kerala do that? Why the state and the people can’t be proud of their art forms?? It is the state government that holds the responsibility for the current situation. If a non-Keralite like me had to take up Mohiniyattam seriously for its promotion and propagation, there is something drastically wrong in the system. Why give Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi equal status? People will naturally like what’s fast and kicking. 

Q: Similarly the trend here is that students learn Bharatantyam, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi, simultaneously. What do you feel about it?

This practice is faulty. Because where is the need and how is it possible to learn all the three dance forms at the same time? Each form has its own distinct style and to learn the different technique of each style correctly is humanly impossible. 

Q: What would you advice the students. 

It takes one’s life time to specialize or master one style of dance; it’s not meagre changing of costume that makes a particular dance style. The youth festival is what has corrupted the scene in Kerala. This trend is found only in Kerala. You have to practice and perfect one style of dance form. 

Q: Having studied the culture and tradition of Kerala what’s the unique feature that you found about the region

I found that Kerala is very distinct and independent from its neighboring states. In terms of traditional values Kerala has an identity of its own. 

Q: The colour of the costume in Mohiniyattam is white and also Keralites generally wear white attire, what do u think is the reason behind it?

The reason could perhaps be the early Jain influence which had a certain Satvik quality about it. At one point of time Buddhism was prevalent in Kerala after which Jainism spread. 

Q: Nowadays dancers are adding some colour to the Mohniyattam costume, your comment on that?

Yes, I feel there is nothing wrong as long as the white base is kept intact. A little change here and there is always refreshing. 

Q: You have been a great patron of Sopana Sangeetha. Why do you think it suits Mohiniyattam better? 

Sopana sangeethanm isn’t very different from Carnatic music. The base of Sopana sangeetham lies in Carnatic music but the difference is in the rendering which gives it a very distinct regional flavour. It brings in more Bhava and hence called Bhava geetham. I feel Sopana sangeetham greatly compliments Mohiniyattam. 

Q: Why aren’t many Mohiniyattam dancers patronizing Sopana sangeetham?

It is because there are very few practitioners of Sopnana sangeetham and also Carnatic music has become so popular and established with Mohiniyattam kutcheri itself from the time of Maharaja Sri Swati Tirunal. It takes a great effort to understand Sopana sangeethama and know the nuances of its rendering. One must be musically inclined too. It’s thus easier to adopt readily available Carnatic compositions. 

Q: Could u tell us something about your Mohiniyattam institute and your teaching methodology?

It was established in Delhi in 1984 as Kala Ambalam later it was renamed in 1995 as Centre for Mohiniyattam. I give great importance to technique in my style of Mohiniyattam. The upper body movement and andolika movements is unique for this dance form. To any beginner I start with this basic training to loosen their torso. We cant only talk about lasya and not show it. 

Q: What do you think is the ideal age for a student to start training in Mohiniyattam?

Mohiniyattam is a very difficult dance form unlike Bharatanatyam which is easy to teach and learn and a child can learn it from very young age say by five or so. But in Mohiniyattam, because of the rounded movements, torso movements as well as its fluidity, it is difficult for a child to get it in the body. The movements has to co-ordinate with the footwork and there should be grace which cant be taught. So I feel 14 or 15 is a right age to start training in Mohiniyattam. Children can be initiated to Bharatantyam meanwhile for a base in any dance discipline. Bharatanatyam is a good base where a child learns as to how the body moves and how it can be disciplined. After a while they can specialize in their chosen dance form. 

Q: Your daughter Vijayalakshmi has also taken up Mohiniyattam and has taken the dance form to different venues in India and abroad what do u feel about it??

She is much more modern and caters to the modern audience but has firm roots in the dance form. She knows what today’s audience want and tries to present Mohiniyattam to a wider audience. She feels tradition need not be stagnated but can grow with the input of the dancer. 

Q: Whats the significance of classical and traditional art forms, how does it add value to the society?

Very much. You find human values ingrained only in classical or traditional art forms. It is something which grooms you to be a fine human being if you practice it properly. You don’t find these values in any other discipline. These dance forms are more of a philosophy rather than entertainment which has to be practiced, experienced and interpreted all through your life. Such is the magnitude and the essence of traditional and classical art forms, which you find only in India. It is a mind and body discipline. Very few of the present generation is aware of its values. People are drawing from tradition but don’t know its value and they tend to dilute it. That’s very sad. 

Q: What would you like to tell the young dancers of Kerala

I would like to say that they should be proud of their art forms. Let them not get into the youth festival attitude where you learn a bit of Mohiniyattam, bit of Bharatantyam and so on. It doesn’t do justice to an art form. Would a Kathakali artiste do that?? Do something for the dance form and be focused on it. You can do a lot for Mohiniyattam. Quality is important. Whatever you do in life do it qualitatively not quantitatively. Build up that quality and your work will be appreciated.


Samavesh 3

Samavesh 3 :-

 A seminar on the Aesthetics of Mohiniyattam on Dec 22, 23 and 24 at 
Nayana Auditorium, Ravindra Kshetra, Below Kannada Bhavan, JC Road, Bangalore...


Program Schedule




Interview with Guru Padmashree Kalamandalam Kshemavathi

Watch full interview with Guru Padmashree Kalamandalam Kshemavathi

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Smt Smitha Rajan on Samavesh

Smt Smitha Rajan on Samavesh

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Interview with Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (Part 1)

interview with Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (Part 1)

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Interview with Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (Part 2)

interview with Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (Part 2)

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Samavesh 2 Part 1

Samavesh 2  (Part 1)

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Samavesh 2 Part 2

Samavesh 2  (Part 2)

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Dr Sunil Kothari: His Memories and Thoughts on Mohiniyattam

dr sunil kothari

Earliest memories of Mohiniyattam

(An interview with him in Oct 2012)

I had gone very long ago, in 1966 to Kerala Kalamandalam. At that time, Chinuammuamma, the old grand lady and Krishna Panicker (who had lost one eye), were the teachers. Thankamani, Gopinath’s wife was his earlier student. Chinuammuamma had also learnt Mohiniyattam from Krishna Panicker. Kalyanikuttyamma, wife of Krishnan Nair was his other student. These were the people I knew about who were following Mohiniyattam in Kalamandalam at that time. Then I met poet Vallathol and his son who took me to see the class of Mohiniyattam. I think there were Satyabhama or Leela(mma), I don’t remember well, they were all so young. Class was taken by a young girl but I do remember Chinuammuamma was there. They were doing Cholkettu and other items which were done earlier at Kalamandalam. That was the first time I was seeing a Mohiniyattam class there. It was separate from the Kathakali class for boys. The boys never went to the Mohiniyattam class nor did the girls go to the Kathakali class.

Read more: Dr Sunil Kothari: His Memories and Thoughts on Mohiniyattam

A German Dancer's Perspective of Mohiniyattam and a Comparison with Contemporary Dance

(Report of her talk in Samavesh II on Jan 12, 2013, Chennai)                                    

anne dietrichAnne Dietrich a Culture and Dance Educationist from Germany is trained in Ballet, Jazz, Contemporary dance, Improvisation Techniques and Theatre. She began her journey in Mohiniyattam in the year 2005 when she started training under Guru Smt Leelamma in Kalamandalam. She spoke about how she embraced Mohiniyattam and shared her experiences and thoughts on the dance whilst making a comparative analysis between Mohiniyattam and Contemporary dance.

“In classical ballet we speak only through body without any expression on the face and somehow I felt a deep desire to emote and tried to connect music, theatre and dance”: Anne’s dedicated voice spoke. In 2004 she made her first production connecting the three and she found it really interesting to tell story by giving a good emotion to the audience. Her quest had just begun.

Her Indian travails

She knew India existed and didn’t know much about the country until 2003 when her friend who was learning Kathakali passionately told her about Kerala Kalamandalam. While looking for more information she came to know about Mohiniyattam and was instantly taken by its grace and feminity. Compared to the straight and jumpy movements in ballet, Mohiniyattam looked more beautiful and using the facial muscles to emote was a fascinating aspect for her. She was also amazed as to how hand gestures are used to narrate stories.

Read more: A German Dancer's Perspective of Mohiniyattam and a Comparison with Contemporary Dance

Nanditha Prabhu on Journey of Music of Mohiniyattam

(Report of her talk in Samavesh II on Jan 11, 2013, Chennai)                                

Representing her guru and mother Kalaratna Kalamandalam Smt Sugandhi and her research guide and guru in Natyashastra, Dr Padma Subramanyam and all the artistes and scholars who have helped her in her research studies, Smt Nanditha Prabhu shared her understanding of the Traditional Music of Kerala which she internalised as part of her research studies on the Ritual Dance forms of Kerala and the traditional Music of the region.

There is a very cardinal relationship between music and dance; music is the mystery that dance try to reveal and the two coexists in all performing arts tradition, she said. For a thorough understanding, she began with an introduction from Natyasastra the earliest Pan-Asian text on dance drama. Though the term Performing Arts came to use in 18th century,  Bharata Muni says that Natya (Performing Arts) ends in Rasanishpathi; emergence of a rasa and gives a summary of elements that leads to it is also mentioned.  In Natya Sangraha, he says Rasa emerges from a psychological state of mind called the bhava. The Bhava which the performer feels is the Bhavakatva and when it reaches the audience it is Bhojakatva, finally it ends in Siddhi, either Manushika Siddhi or Daivika Siddhi. 

Read more: Nanditha Prabhu on Journey of Music of Mohiniyattam

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