The three-day workshop on Kanak Rele style Mohiniyattam by Sithara Balakrishnan included training sessions and a series of talks by experts.

The unprecedented verve seen recently among the artists in general and dancers, in particular, could be imputed to the lifting of Covid restrictions at least partially. Perhaps a conspicuous example was the workshop on Mohiniyattam that was organized by the Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Kala Samithy, Ramamangalam, Kerala from December 26- 28. The dancers who were used to online performances and practices for the past two years appeared inspired by the off-line project that was conceived by the Samithy quite ingeniously. And for the same reason, the workshop turned a highly productive one.

Apart from the students of the Samithy, participants from Thiruvananthapuram and Palakkad turned up to be exposed to prolonged sessions of training and a series of illuminating talks that went a long way in enlightening them on the history of evolution, techniques and more of the dance form.

Sithara Balakrishnan, Mohiniyattam

Samithy’s plan was to familiarize the young dancers with the ‘Kanak Rele’ style of Mohiniyattam for which they roped in Sithara Balakrishnan, MFA degree holder from Nalanda Nritha Mahavidyala, Mumbai. True, compared to other schools of Mohiniyattam, this style stands out for its more aesthetic adavus which could not be practised to perfection in just three days. Realising this, Sithara had sent video clips to the students well in advance to prepare themselves. How far this was beneficial to them was reflected in their activity that lasted for nearly twelve hours a day with only short breaks. Only minor corrections had to be effected.

The Sopanam style

Sopanam style mohiniyattam

Incidentally, Samithy’s decision to adhere to this style was natural as Ramamangalam is the heart-land of Sopana Sangeetham. Further, the village is the birthplace of the legendary musician Shatkala Govinda Marar in whose name the institution had been established. Commendably, the famous ‘Govinda Pancharatna’ compositions of the maestro were composed in Mohiniyattam a few years ago and they were anchored on Sopana music and rhythms. The Sopana bani of Ramamangalam has an identity of its own and is much sought-after.

Rele’s choreographies

The students staged a cholkettu and a thillana in the Kalamandalam style at first. The cholkettu was in ragamalika and talamalika involving chaturasrammisram and tisram variants. The thillana was of Swatithirunal in Bhupalam raga and adi thalam. It was easy for the students to comprehend the intrinsic differences in the styles as they did the same numbers in the Kanak Rele style too.

Other items included ‘Mukhachalam’, ‘Jeeva’ and ‘Vasakasajja’, (one among the ashtanayikas) – all choreographies of Kanak Rele. Mukhachalam, an extinct feat in Kathakali, serves as a preface to the dance recital by creating a garland of ragas and talas. Here for want of time, only Anandabhairavi raga and, Marma and Adi talas were used. ‘Jeeva’ is pure nritta that exemplifies the mood of the dancer as she climbs the steps of the Sopanam in a temple, enters the sanctum to unite with the paramatma.

The rising tempo of the varied talas including Marma, Adi and Kundanachi and eventually the spell of silence as the dancers take to the front of the stage with footwork and hands joined, created a spiritual ambience similar to that at the Sopanam of the temple. Vasakasajja is basically an abhinaya piece in which the nayika who is expecting the arrival of her love, is making preparations to receive him.

Kalamandalam Sugandhi

Each day had a separate session for talks by scholars. Dr Kalamandalam Sugandhi’s talk was based on her own experience as a student in Kalamandalam, a student under Kalamandalam Kayanikutty Amma, her career as a teacher in FACT school, her studies and research under Dr Padma Subramaniam that landed her PhD recently etc. There were very interesting questions from the students which she answered explaining from her own experience. Regarding the varied styles and the controversies associated with them, Sugandhi advised students to ignore them and try to understand them all.

“As you get experienced, you will be able to improvise by yourself based on your knowledge garnered from different sources including different books”, she told them. She gave them a list of precious treatises and exhorted them to make reading such books a habit. Also, one has to watch performances of maestros which will have a lasting impression on their minds. Asked about the techniques for choreography, she said it demands a long experience and evolves spontaneously once the lyrics are digested. In this connection, she demonstrated how the Swati padam, “Sumasayaka ”were choreographed by her.

The less-explored treasure

Kalamandalam Rachitha Ravi

Dr Rachita Ravi, faculty member, Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed to be University, opened a treasure before the students by explaining the contents of the book Balaramabharatam by Karthika Thirunal Balarama Varma during the 18th century. Incidentally, her thesis was also on this book. She wondered how such a book composed in Sanskrit written only for nritta escaped the attention of researchers and gurus of Kerala Kalamandalam that was responsible for the revival of Mohiniyattam. As for her, she came to know about it from Kanak Rele during a lecture at Thrissur. Giving details of the book, she said that it had only six chapters as against 36 in Natyasastra. It is clear that the author was well versed in Natyashastra and Abhinayadarpana. The book mainly dealt with angika abhinaya, but in its entirety. One wonders how the author could describe even micro-movements of all anghas of the body.

According to Rachita, this was beneficial to choreographers and she had introduced some of them in her works. As for the mudras, forty single-handed, 27 combined and eight nritta hastas have been explained. Also, the technique of delineating emotions using breath is praiseworthy. Another inventive technique was how the eye could zoom in and zoom out the image of an object just like a camera lens. A study of the book helps us to get to the hoary tradition of Kerala and its roots and for the same reason the book is of utmost importance to Mohiniyattam dancers, Rachita added. The students were excited to learn more and she told them to refer to the Malayalam translation of the book by Dr V S Sharma.

Ragas and rhythms

Mohiniyattam Talas

A comprehensive account of the talas was described by Neelamperoor Suresh Kumar, a lecturer in the Bharatanatyam department of St Teresa’s college, Ernakulum. He began from the rudiments of the concept of rhythm and explained the seven basic talas in Carnatic music with their five variants. He made the students pronounce them keeping the rhythm with their hands. Slowly, they changed the tempos and students were asked to perform adavus according to the varied tempos. Gradually he slipped into the Sopana talas and how the vaytharis (syllables) could be recited for which a few students were asked to perform Mohiniyattam adavus according to them. As for the rendition of Sopana sangeetham in Mohiniyattam, he demonstrated the same by singing the composition, “Adimalarina thozhunnen” keeping rhythm on the Edakka. This was an eye-opener for the students and useful as they were being introduced to the Sopana style of the dance form.

Even as the first day was about to conclude, the young dancers seemed to celebrate the workshop and they were seen practising in small groups in the premises of the compound, even after the prescribed time. This happened on the remaining two days also. Cutting a cake and sharing them was an expression of their exultation of enjoying the workshop.

The workshop was inaugurated by Dr C P Unnikrishnan, the Natya Shastra pandit. Certificates of participation were distributed on the last day after the performances by the entire group of students.


GS Paul is an eminent art columnist and critic. He has been writing for national dailies such as The Hindu for more than three decades. Currently, he is the Editorial Advisor of India Art Review.

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