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. 


Of the eleven elements that work in tandem Nanditha threw light on Svaras, Aatotyam and Gaanam to talk about the traditional music of Kerala.  She pointed out how in the olden times, there was great cultural exchange that happened between the many regions of Bharta Varsha. Though not territorially divided like today, the Bharat varsha was mentioned to comprise of four Pravirthis: Panchali (North), Oddyamavathi (East), Avanti (West) and Dakshinatya (South).

Being from Dakshinthya region, Mohiniyattam naturally has links to the other performing traditions of the territory. In Tolkapiam of third century, it is indicated that the whole of Daakshinatya was one pole without any division.

The Meipadu in Tolkapium mentions how we express through bhava, and also about Suvais or Rasa as mentioned in Natyasashtra.

The Silapadikaram written by Elango Aadikal, brother of Chera King during Sangam period about 5th centurry, also indicates that whole of Dakshinatya was one region. It has a chapter called Arangetra Kathai which speaks about the training that Dancer Madhavi has undergone in various artforms, all the aspects she has to look into for a performance, the musical instruments, Taalas used et al which makes it a treasure that we need to look into before we narrow down to Mohiniyattam, she said. It is only because dancer Madhavi followed the shastras of Natya did she attain such great glory, she added.

In a commentary of Silapadikaram during 14th century by Adiyar Kunellar, which has many Desi terms not found in earlier texts, there is a surprisingly beautiful mention of all Talas that are used in Kerala. So the Talas used in Kerala were once part of the entire Daakshinathya region, she pointed out.

The Maarga Taalas as described in Natyasashtara are also used in Kerala, Nanditha said. In a work called 'Rhythm and Poetry' by Dr Manoj Kuroor, she said she was very surprised that the book 'Talasamutiram' which she saw in Tanjore and never gave it a second look , was translated and carried all the Taalas used in Kerala performing arts.

Kerala's own Balaramabharatam by Maharaja Kartika Tirunal of 18th century mentions about music and dance of that era.

The Sangeetha Pithamaha Purandara Dasa of 16th Century established a system of learning which is still commonly followed. In the natural process, the older musical system was not used and was slowly forgotten and there were fewer and fewer practitioners of it down the ages. Lack of masters in the present era of the early system of Music must have led to this uprooting of the musical system in Kerala and other regions, said Nanditha.

During the Golden period of the arts under Maharaja Swati Tirunal, several cultural exchanges happened. Many great artistes have been in his court and in his works we see an influx of other musical traditions from different regions which enriched the musical content. In an article in the Folklore publication; "Swati Thriunalintey Kaalam", there is mention of the many musicians  and dancers who adorned his court. The list began with "Mohiniyattakaaran Varkala Rama Bhagavathar" and many other gems from not only Dakshinathya but also from other regions of Bharta Varsha. 

His works can be divided into three main categories, Keerthanas in various languages, Manipravala krithis and Upakhyanas or Kuchela vrittam. As mentioned by Dr Deepthi Omcherry in her book, we dont know how the compositions were sung in those days though we use carnatic musical pattern today. But she says that it was sung following the traditional Ragas and Talas that were in use during the period of his reign. She mentions the usage of Kundanachi Talam, Kumbha Talam which many of us arent aware of today.


One of the Tanjore quartrets Vadivelu who was a court musician during Swatis reign for sure has influenced the dance of Mohiniyattam as well as the musical tradition of the region. It can be considered to have had tremendous impact or a shift in the musical tradition of Kerala.

Nanditha also pointed out an interesting fact that the lyrics of the Cholkettu taught at first in Kalamandalam was Telugu which her mother surprisingly found out to be the same used in Kuchipudi Shabdam which she learnt in Kuchipudi Village. So there was a very strong exchange between the different regions of Dakshinatya. Also the Bhairavi Varnam in Bharatanatyam taught in Kalamandalam, she learnt the exact one from Prahlada Sharma sir in Kuchipudi.

The art of time (auditory factor) and art of space (visual factor) should have an organic intervention. As Dr Padma Subramanyam has said, when you go up in music, your hands also must go up accordingly. Music is the mystery that the dance has to reveal. Music and dance should complement each other to the extent of being one.  For this union to happen there should be Bhava, Artha, Laya and Tala and when all these factors when present in the right proportion in the dance, it will result in Rasanishpathi.

Dr Kanak Rele and Smt Bharati Sivaji have adopted the Kerala musical tradition in Mohiniyattam and they are the ones who looked at it from that perspective. We need to applaud them for taking that initiative which must have been hard for them at that time. Naditha said; since she didnt know much about Sopanam music she was sceptical and then started her search to know more about it.  Ever since she started doing her research studies under Dr Padma Subramayam, she says she realised that there is so much to learn and said that what she was presenting is only the tip of the Iceberg.

Nanditha spoke of the main features that distinguish the Traditional Music of Kerala. One was the intricate rhythmic patterns that are still used in many of the Traditional Talas, as in Arjuna Nrittam, an almost extinct artform of the region wherein 108 beat Tala is used. The use of Ghana Vaadya, like Thimila and Chengila, which gives the power of time or maatra. Akaara Alapana known as Raga Alapana in Carnatic music is Rhythm based in Traditional Kerala Music unlike in Carnatic style. The Akaara Alapana enhances and enriches the Nritta.

 She pointed out that one of the main features that make it complement Mohiniyattam is the Andolika Gamaka prayoga similar to the Andolika movements of the dance form. There is also a punctuational aspect in the Tala pattern which brings out the Desi flavour and eloquence of pause.

There are many variety of tala sysytems in Kerala which we dont know, there is Marga talas which is mentioned in Natyasastra, there is 108 Tala system, some Tala systems without names and others like Ganapathi Talams, Lakshmi Talams, Kundanachi Talams etc, Nanditha mentioned.  

To understand the characteristics of the Kerala Talas, she explained the simplest of Tala system of Kerala, the Ekachuzhadi tala system based on the human heart beat.  It was Dr Manoj Kuroor, scholar and poet from Kerala who has done extensive research in the traditional music of Kerala who taught her about these Tala sytstems, she said.

The different Ekachuzhadi talas are derived in an orderly pattern of skipping one beat after one to five counts. When you miss one count after every beat of the heart beat it becomes, Ekam, (1, - ) When you miss a count after two beats, it is Roopam (1, 1, - ) after three counts when you miss a beat, it is Champa (1, 1, 1, - ) after four counts when you miss one it is Kaarika (1, 1, 1, 1, -) missing a beat after five beats gives rise to Aiyyadi talam.

Marma Taalam is when all the first four talas are put together (1 ,-+  1, 1, - +, 1, 1, 1, - + 1, 1, 1, 1, - ) which has fourteen maathras same as Dhruva Talam. Though maatras are similar, the way it is sung is different that gives a characteristic feel to these Talas.

Kumbha talam is the most difficult it goes like ((1,1,1,-)x 3) + ( (1,1,-) x 2 )+ (1, -)

She showed how the gamaka pattern in Sopanam music complements the andolika movement which is very pronounced and one of the main characteristic of Mohiniyattam. 

By demonstrating two choreography, a Thyani, a meditative song on Ganesha in Aiyyadi Talam and a Jeeva in Marma Talam, she proved how the Traditional Music of Kerala  is the perfect adornment for Mohiniyattam.

Samavesh II a Mohinyattam exposition jointly organised by Lasyatarangni and The Alliance Francaise of Madras was supported by and Nrityasree Foundation. 

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