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.