Bharati Shivaji interviewed by Shreya Kumar, a student of LSR College, DU (2005)
Mohiniattam is one of the most lyrical classical dance forms of India, originating from Kerala. The word Mohini stands for an enchantress, a beautiful woman who seduces others for a particular purpose. Attam means dance. So Mohiniattam is the dance of the enchantress.
The earliest known textual reference about Mohiniattam is found in a commentary on the Vyavaharamala, a Sanskrit text written by Mazhamangalam Namboodiri during the 16th century. In the commentary believed to be authored by a migrated Brahmin scholar of Kerala, the word for dancers was translated as Mohiniattam artistes etc. Another reference on Mohiniattam can be found in the Ottanthullal (a semi-classical and semi-folk dramatic art form of Kerala) script Ghoshayatra, authored by Kunchan Nambiar during the 2nd half of the 18th century.
Perhaps Mohiniattam is the only dance form of India that was subject to several revivals and renaissance. Some scholars believe that like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam too was associated with devadasi tradition and other scholars think Mohiniattam was a dance form performed by women but not associated with devadasi system.
For several reasons the male members of the affluent and powerful Namboodiri and Nair families exploited the Mohiniattam dancers. Gradually the dance was considered inappropriate and there were few takers for it. The efforts of Maharaj Swathitirunal (1813-1846) and the attempts of Kerala poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, in 1932, 1937 and in 1950, to revive Mohiniattam are important endeavours.
While dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Odissi attained both national and international significance until recently Mohiniattam was sidelined as none took Mohiniattam seriously to the national performing scene, during the sixties and early seventies. The repertoires of Mohiniattam were set similar to the Bharatanatyam. Like the Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music too was adapted for Mohiniattam. During those periods no serious research was done into the music of Kerala, the sopana sangeetam, which is most ideal for Mohiniattam.
Mohiniattam can be singled out with admirable distinction, for it's characteristic body movements, marked by the graceful sway of the torso. What is unique is the easy going rise and fall of the body, with emphasis mainly on the torso. The movements are never abrupt, but dignified, easy, natural, restrained and yet subtle. The glances, postures, gait employed are so subtle and graceful that they convey the infinite suggestiveness of radiant love. it is deeply rooted in femininity, GRACE (Lasya) and BEAUTY (Sringara) forming the quintessence of this dance form.
The traditional costume worn in Mohiniyattam is white with a gold border, and gold ornaments are worn. The unique coiffure with hair gathered on the left side of the head reflect it's aesthetic appeal, making it distinct from the other dance forms of India.
The regional system of music that Mohiniyattam follows is the SOPANA style, which in its lyricism is evocative of the spiritual element. Instruments used are Shuddha, Madalam, Mridangam, Manjira (Thalam), Vina, Violin, Kanjira, Surpeti, Venu, Tanpura.
Interview with Bharati Shivaji by Shreya Kumar
Dance style: Mohiniyattam (Kalamandalam and Kalyanikuttiamma)
Gurus: Initially Radha Marar of Kalamadalam style, and during research work Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikker who is also theatre personality from Kerala.
As the name implies 'Dance Of The Enchantress" so the movements are very subtle very rounded the entire body is involved in the movement. Lasya is the main essence of Mohiniyattam.
Comparison to other forms
It can be compared to two styles basically that is Bharatanatyam and Kathakali.
- · Kathakali is more masculine and it has a dance drama tradition where so many characters are involved whereas Mohiniyattam is performed solo, and it is very gentle and movements are very graceful and languorous.
- · Bharatanatyam is more vibrant, brisk and angular. Also costume of Mohiniyattam is white with a gold border, there is no consistent costume in Bharatanatyam.
Format or repertoire
Initially Mohiniattam followed a repertoire, which was structured by the king Maharaja Swati Tirunal, and it basically followed the format similar to Bharatanatyam. That is, it began with Cholkettu which is an invocatory item, in which the characteristic movements of this form can be seen, followed by Jatiswaram which is nritta (pure dance), then we go on to Varnam which is in the general repertoire followed by padams etc. However I have been working on to give Mohiniattam a separate identity and my format is different from this format.
1. Ganapati Stuti - Invocation to Ganapati followed by obeisance paid to Saraswati.
2. Mukh Chalam - The indigenous rhythmic patterns of the Ragas Talas from Kerala can be incorporated. Hence the basic movements are seen.
3. Padams composed by the king Swati Tirunal and others as well.
4. Ashtapatis and Geetha-Govindams - they highlight the musical tradition of Kerala
5. Jeeva - it involves technique and abstract movements.
Q You Single handedly rescued a dying art form and brought it up. How has the journey been ??
The journey has actually been very interesting and wonderful experience, but when I started it I had no idea as to where I was going, there was no proper guidance. I was looking for an answer which was not explored earlier hence I had to find my own answers, I wasn't willing to accept the tradition in which Mohiniattam was being practiced that is a little of Kathakali and a little of Bharatanatyam. I felt full justice to Mohiniattam was not being done. I felt it had a lot of potential which I was willing to explore. That exploring was the actual journey where I interacted with various dance traditions, regional traditions of Kerala, music, culture, architecture, paintings, everything had a role to play. It was all there I just had to string it or connect it together for Mohiniattam. Entire journey took about 35 years and the only support I had was my conviction.
Now I can sit back and say it was a very fulfilling experience. I can see that now Mohiniattam has achieved a certain status and a recognition, which has attracted many young dancers. Even in Kerala not many were agreeing to take it up, they would ignore it because they felt there was nothing interesting about it, now they find they can, so at least I have paved a way for them and I feel very happy about it.
Q About daughter Vijayalakshmi who is an accomplished dancer as well ??
I could see Mohiniattam grow through Vijayalakshmi. When she was born I had already taken up Mohiniattam (I initially learnt Bharatanatyam and Odissi) and as a child she had seen my rehearsals, composing, choreographing, traveling, she was use to that kind of an environment. It was entirely on her own that she took up dance, she was also initially a Bharatanatyam dancer but she chose to switch over, not because I wanted her to, it was her own will. Then our thoughts about Mohiniattam matched. We could understand each other. Even though as mother and daughter we are two very different personalities, but its Mohiniattam where we think identical, look identical and are equally passionate about the dance form. Her production Swan Lake where she performed Mohiniyattam on western classical music was a great success. Vijayalakshmi has a modern approach and feels very strongly about Mohiniyattam, lets hope she takes it to greater hights.
She is the founder-director of the CENTRE FOR MOHINIYATTAM, which is the only institution of its kind in India, which is exclusively devoted to the cause of Mohiniyattam and has ensured that today Mohiniyattam has been acknowledged as one of the major classical dance-forms.
For further details she can be contacted at
104, Bhaktawar Singh Block, Asian Games Village
New Delhi 110 048
Tel: (011) 26492578