Classical Dance


Mohinyattam Dancers Imitating The Swaying Of The Kerala Coconut Trees

Mohiniyattam is the classical dance of Kerala that is usually performed by women.  The name is inspired by Mohini, the female avatar of Lord Vishnu.  It also means beautiful dancing women.  It is Lasya inspired and consists of gentle, graceful, soft, and calm movements.  This is traditionally a solo dance performance that is only done after extensive training.  The dancer performs circular movements accompanied by subtle expressions and delicate footsteps.  There are elements of Bharatnatyam as seen in the grace and elegance of the dance as well as Kathakali as seen in the vigor of the dance in this dance form.  The music used is Carnatic style and the recitation may be by the dancer herself or a vocalist using a medieval south Indian language called Manipravala which is a combination of Tamil-Malayalam-Sanskrit. 

Origin And Development Of Mohiniyattam

Mohiniyattam finds mention in the writing by Mazhamagalam Narayanan Namboodhiri in 1709 called Vyavaharamala and later in the work of the poet Kunjan Nambiar namely Ghoshayatra.  The present structure of this dance form was finalized by the Travancore kings Maharaja Kartika Tirunal and Swati Tirunal in the 18th and 19th century.  Hand gestures and facial expressions used in Mohiniyattam follow the Hastha Lakshanadeepika.  Movements have also been borrowed from other dance forms such as Nangiar Koothu, Tiruvatirakal, and Kaikottikali.  This dance form was revived in Kerala due to the efforts of the famous poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and further popularized with the establishment of Kerala Kalamandalam dance schools.

The Actual Dance Recital

The basic dance posture in this dance form is parted feet with knees bent outwards with an erect upper torso.  Ati bhanga or a gentle side to side swaying of body and hips can also be observed.  The body work is often compared to the swaying of palm leaves or the gently rolling ocean waves.  The footwork is soft and coordinated with the musical beat.  The dance units in Mohinyattam known as atavukal are grouped into Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam, and Sammisram.  The sequence followed by the dancer consists of invocation to the goddess Bhagavati and a prayer to Shiva also called Cholkettu, then Jatisvaram, Varnam, Padam or song, Tillana or the interpretation of melody by the dancer, Shlokam, and Saptam.  The costumes are simple in white or off white similar to the Kerala Kasavu sari.  The dancer uses simple ornaments and a one-sided hairstyle called kuduma which is ringed with jasmine flowers.  The makeup though simple highlights the eyes so that eye movements are clearly visible during the performance.  There are chilankas or ghungroos on her feet with feet and fingers colored red.  The mridangam, idakka, flute, veena, and cymbals are the usual accompanying instruments and the melody is rendered in the sopana style which is slow and melodic.

Learning Dance Forms With Discipline

Learning classical dances such as Mohiniyattam requires passion and discipline on the part of the student.  It does not provide instant gratification and requires patience and perseverance to be successful.  Needless to say, this translates into life situations and gives the person the skills required to tackle life head on.  Mohinyattam is a gentle and graceful dance and will help the dancer to imbibe these qualities into his life.


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