How was it to learn a dance which is not from your part of the world?
I never felt alien to the dance but yes I did find it difficult to adapt with the lifestyle here at first as everything was new to me in Kerala. From the language to the food habits and to the outlook of the people, it was all difficult at first. However, Mohiniyattam dance was just another important part of me, I could connect with it well. I somehow garnered the difficulty of settling in the state. I adapted well I think and that’s just because of the huge support I got from my parents, my husband and my guru.
You have done such fantastic choreography in Mohiniyattam. Can you tell us more about it?
The first item I choreographed was on the six seasons titled The Ritu Ranga. The music of Ritu Ranga was an eclectic blend of Rabindra Sangeeth and Kalidasa’s Ritu Samhara composed in Sopanam music. Kavalam Narayana Panicker Sir helped me tune the music for Kalidasa’s Ritu Samhara to Sopanam style. The particular dance item showcased the beautiful and vibrant seasons. We had Malayalee dancers dancing to Rabindra Sangeeth and there was thisfine blend of percussion instruments- a mix of the Bengal and Kerala. We went international with the dance item and won a lot of applause. This first attempt of mine gave me more confidence to work on more. I choreographed the entire dance in Mohiniyattam
Then I did Saalabhanjika, which is based on the story of Ahalya, from Ramayana, written by Dr. C.P. Unnikrishnan. I did change the story a bit in the ending and added my interpretations to it. Kavalam Narayana Panicker wrote the whole script for me. Ahalya, is every woman who is forever at a conflict with her inner self and her outer self. Most often women are torch-bearers for no faults of theirs. Ahalya is one such woman too, who was cursed by her husband, Sage Gauthama, for no fault of hers. She was cheated by Lord Indira, who wooed her, disguised as her husband.
In my story, Ahalya, who is turned into a stone, is alive inside with all the womanly feelings brimming inside her. She falls in love with her sculptor or The Shilpi, as he sculpts her into a beautiful figurine. But somewhere in between she comes back to her senses and realizes that she is a married woman. Maybe the Shilpi was Lord Rama, who in Ramayana liberates her from her curse.This again worked out wonderfully well and won many international laurels.
My other choreographies are Kunti- a mother’s plight, Pingala, Radha Madhavam- Jeevatma who is Radha here longing to merge with Paramaathma, who is lord Krishna and the Panchabhoota- the 5 eternal elements. At present I am planning to work on Sita, who again is blamed for no fault of hers. I am working on it…hopefully it turns out well.
And your favorite among your choreographies…
That would be Pingala, who is a beautiful courtesan in Mithila. She is very proud of her beauty and has cartloads of men thronging at her door every day. Even when she heads out in her palanquin, men cluster to catch a glimpse of her. But gradually there comes a day when men do not need her any longer. She is all alone. No one comes knocking at her door and days go by and head into months and then years. She realizes that inner beauty is more significant than the outer looks. She slowly surrenders to Lord Rama, chanting his name all the time, repenting for her faults. She sings his story every single day of her old age and one day she sees his aura and she attains salvation. This particular dance item was the toughest of my choreographies as I had to bring out different layers ofemotions from pride to frustration and at last to the total surrender to god. In every dance composition I give a message to the audience.
How as Mohiniyattam evolved over the ages ?
Maharaja Swathi Thirunaal revived Mohiniyattam which was never very popular until then. It was predominantly an art form used to lure landlords and office bearers of the kings of Kerala. No ladiesfrom good families ever learned the dance back then. Swathi Thirunaal gave the dance form a new meaning. He wrote many compositions for the dance and did revive it. In fact he brought artists from Tanjavore, Tamilnadu to learn the dance and perform. But what actually happened was that these outside performers were Bharatnatyam dancers who kind of left a lot of their dance style imprints in this art form. After Swathi Thirunaal, it was Vallathol Narayana Menon who started Mohiniyattam classes in Kalamandalam in the last century.
Now there are 4 dance styles in Mohiniyattam- the Kalamandalam style, Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma version, the styles of Bharathi Shivaji and Kanak Rele- both from outside Kerala. But the authentic style is the Kalamandalam style. These other artists added their style to the existing version of the dance form. In every other Indian dance form, acclaimed artists have the freedom to add their own interpretation to make the art form alive, so why not Mohiniyattam.
It was Kavalam Narayana Panicker sir, who decidedly felt that Mohiniyattam should have a Kerala touch to it as the other art forms of the state were puritan forms. Mohiniyattom, was entirely based on Carnatic music. Kavalam sir connected the art to Sopanam music- Kerala’s indigenous temple music. Bharathi Shivaji and Kanak Rele took the art form to international platforms and gave it a complete global coverage.