Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, the grand lady of Mohiniattam, gave a structure and new dimension to the art form. Today is her remembrance day.

Twenty-two years ago this day, a pall of gloom descended on the cultural landscape of Kerala as the media broke the news of the demise of the Mohiniyattam supremo Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma. Her exit from the dance scenario had virtually orphaned not only scores of dancers but the dance form itself.

Kalyanikutty Amma took to the dance form when the social opprobrium towards it had reached its pinnacle, thanks to the degeneration it had undergone in the absence of royal patronage. When Mohiniyattom was introduced in Kalamandalam in 1932, the institution had to reconstruct it from scratch. With the exit of the first teacher Kalyaniamma and the first student Thankamani, the kalari had to be wound up. When it was resumed in 1937, among the three new students was a young and energetic girl, Karingamanna Kalyanikutty.

It was her indomitable passion for literature that took her to the institution where she hoped to have just a glance of poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, the founder of Kalamandalam. Moreover, she was an aficionado of Vallathol poems. It was at the poet’s behest that she joined Kalamandalam as a Kathakali student. But soon she became enamoured by the graceful appeal of Mohiniyattom and turned a disciple of Korattikkara Krishna Panicker. An outstanding danseuse of her times, she was invited to teach Mohiniyattom in Chennai and Gujarat after graduation in 1940. When she married the doyen of Kathakali Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair in the same year, it was described as a marriage of lasya and tandava; like Shiva and Parvathy.

Pioneer researcher

A demonstration at Kerala Sangeetha Naktaka Akademi

Researchers in Mohiniyattam nowadays are dime a dozen but Kalyanikutty Amma was the pioneer researcher. Small wonder, that all the maestros who have garnered encomiums for enriching Mohiniyattam had taken lessons from her. Dr. Kanak Rele who had filmed the surviving dancers as part of her research during the 1970s had vouched that of the three – Kalpurathe Kunjukutty Amma, Thottasseri Chinnammu Amma and Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma – the style of the last alone bore elements of classicism. Bharati Shivaji has averred that her own style was anchored on what she had learnt from Kalyanikutty Amma. 

In those days when travel facilities were miserable, Kalyanikutty Amma met numerous persons and visited innumerable places and temples to probe the nuances which had faded into oblivion. She interviewed many surviving devadasis attached to temples in Kanyakumari, Sucheendram, Kandiyoor, Tripunithura and Thiruvanchikulam. 

Her efforts helped to enrich whatever she had mastered from her gurus in Kalamandalam. And today, her choreographies surpass similar ones in aesthetics and structural stability. Until failing health prevented her from appearing on the stage, she was the only danseuse who was courageous enough to talk authoritatively on Mohiniyattom. When her fraternity accepted ‘kondakettu’ for performance, she boldly stuck to the ‘kakapaksha’ espoused by her. And she had her own reasons too.

Guardian of authenticity

In a 1990 interview to me for The Hindu, she had said, “Specific conclusions had been arrived at in a seminar organised at Kalamandalam during the ’60s about the hairstyle and the separation of the feet for mandalams. But to my surprise I found, during a visit to the institution, Kalamandalam chose to follow kondakettu. Earlier, the distance between the feet prescribed was a few inches and this was violated by Kalamandalam itself.” It was a surprise to her. Also, her request for the documents of the proceedings of the seminar went unheeded by the authorities. 

With her family

At the 10-day Mohiniyattom workshop organised by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in 1990, she made an epochal declaration, “The practice of decorating the hair of the Mohiniyattom danseuse with Surya and Chandra on either side, stems from the Devadasi tradition. Any departure from this will forfeit the traditional authenticity of Mohiniyattom. As long as these components are retained, any style is welcome.” This observation received thunderous applause from the dancer fraternity, though the Devadasi origin of the dance form was contended by many researchers and scholars later.

She was also not averse to experimentation. She had said, “Experimentations are welcome so far as they do not depart from the themes of bhakti and sringara which Mohiniyattam embraces so characteristically. As the chief spokesperson of the dance form, she was also conscious of its limitations. Once she pointed out, “Controversies are still alive with regard to the very repertoire of Mohiniyattom,” for, it was on the lines of Bharatanatyam. Even though the critics talked about the ‘Kalyanikutty Amma Style,’ she never claimed that she had evolved a style of her own. Her contribution was only an improvisation of what little was taught to her at Kalamandalam.

Proficient writer

Incidentally, she was the only Mohiniyattam danseuse with exceptional literary taste. Published in Mathrubhumi were Atmarodanam, AtmabaliPoovadiyil vachuDagdahrudaya and also Vanamala, a collection of her poetic works with a preface by O.N.V Kurup. She proved a playwright by publishing Thrayambakam, a collection of three dance dramas. She was given the title of Kavayitry (poetess) by Vallathol himself for her poem felicitating him on his shashtipoorthy (60th birthday). 

Her book “Mohiniyattam: Charithravum Aattaprakaravum” (history and acting manual) is the end product of several years of ardent studies and research. Published in 1992 first, the book is still a reference text for students of all classes. In this book she has quoted Vallathol’s request to her on his deathbed: “Kalyani, I could uplift Kathakali to a satisfactory level but couldn’t do much about Mohiniyattam. I am entrusting Mohiniyattam to you and I am confident that you can do it”. This is enough indication of the incomplete efforts in Kalamandalam to reconstruct Mohiniyattam even in 1958 when the poet died. 

 The State and Central Akademis honoured her by conferring awards and fellowships. She had also received the prestigious Kalidas Samman in 1997. “Mohiniyattathinte Amma”, the 50-minute biopic directed by the renowned film maker Vinod Mankara and produced by Smitha Rajan, the granddaughter of Kalayanikutty Amma, is an authentic documentation of the doyenne’s life and contributions.

G S Paul

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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