Female-centric dance forms could have deeper connections to the female goddess worship and Tantric philosophies that flourished in Kerala in the medieval period.
I have discussed a few references about the lasya dance of ‘Mohini’ in the legends and myths in the earlier articles. The beauty of lasya or graceful feminine dance narrated in such puranic stories could have influenced the philosophy and epistemology of dance forms like Mohiniyattam that evolved in South India over a long period. While this does not necessarily relate to the historicity of such dance forms in their present form, it alludes to the ethos of such forms.
As mentioned earlier Parvati assumes the form Bhairavi with the intent of creation. Devi Bhagavatham talks about Parvathi’s power to attract:
“Jnaninaamapi chetamsi devi bhagavathi
Sa Baladakrsya mohaya mahamaaya”
Mahamaya, who has no beginning and who is virtuous, famous and prosperous powerfully enchants the minds of even those who have attained emancipation and tempts them into worldly attachment. The whole visible world is an illusion caused by the Devi and the same Devi can liberate one from the world through salvation.
The celestial enchantress
There are other references to the word ‘Mohini’ like the story of Bhasmasura and Rugmangada. In the story of Bhasmasura Lord Vishnu disguises as Mohini to beguile Bhasmasura and prevent him from killing Siva. Bhasmasura is enticed by the beauty of Mohini and forgets about Siva. He wants to marry her. Mohini asks him to dance with her and while copying the movement of Mohini, Bhasmasura touches his head with his forefinger and he turns into ashes. In this story, Mohini appears as a dancer.
Similarly in the story of Rugmangada, a celestial enchantress appears as Mohini to beguile Rugmangada and test his devotion to Lord Vishnu.
The word Mohini is used in both these contexts to indicate the feminine beauty and charm of the character that infatuates the protagonists in these respective stories. Ironically, at one stage in the history of Mohiniyattam in the late 1800s, this connotation of mythical Mohinis may have had an influence on the moral standing of this dance form, perhaps further encouraged by the social circumstances of the patriarchal society of Kerala those days.
References in Soundarya Lahari
The story of Vishnu appearing as Mohini in the Palazhi Mathana is famous. Sankaracharya’s Soundarya Lahari refers to this story as:
“Haristhvamaradhya Pranatha Jana Soubhagya Jananim
Pura Nari Bhuthva Puraripumapi Kshobhamanayath
Smaropithvam Nathva Rathinayana Lehyena Vapusha
Muninam Apyantha: Prabhavathi Hi Mohaya Mahatham”
Here Sankaracharya states that even Lord Vishnu, who himself adorned the beautiful form of Mohini and enticed Siva, bow down to Goddess Parvati’s feet. By referring to Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini, the sloka compares the beauty of Sriparvati to that of Mohini. Again the emphasis here is on the quality of beauty and grace of the Mohini form to appreciate that Goddess Parvati is even more beautiful than the personification of beauty as Mohini.
A brief interpretation of the concepts of dance linked to the Tantric philosophy was described earlier. These philosophies and traditions are still part of some of the ritualistic performances like Theyyam and Mudiyettu of Kerala. While the dance of Mohiniyattam went nearly extinct towards the end of the 18th century, female-centric dance forms could have had deeper connections to the female goddess worship and Tantric philosophies that flourished in Kerala during the medieval and ancient times. In a series of articles, we are attempting to explore some of this potential connection of this dance form to antiquity using only the minimal amount of remaining pieces of evidence that are archived in the repertoire.