Tradition and Modernization: Mohiniyattam – Kalamandalam Kshemavathy

In the world of Mohiniyattam, a classical dance form deeply rooted in tradition, winds of change have been subtly blowing in recent years. These winds bring innovation and growth, sparking questions about the preservation of the art’s identity and its journey toward aesthetic evolution. As a devoted practitioner of Mohiniyattam, I’ve witnessed and contributed to these transformations. In this article, we’ll explore these changes in the context of tradition and modernization.

Mohiniyattam, like any art form, isn’t static but a living tradition. It draws inspiration from the graceful celestial temptress Mohini and boasts a rich history. However, to captivate contemporary audiences, it must evolve while preserving its core essence.

During my early years studying Mohiniyattam under Chinnamma Teacher, I delved into its fundamentals, including choreography, ragas, costumes, and more. Yet, certain aspects, like ‘Thillana,’ remain hazy in my memory. Later, under Guru Nathakavalam Satyabhama Teacher’s guidance, I encountered a choreographic approach blending Bharatanatyam elements, marking a significant shift in Mohiniyattam’s evolution.

Change in Mohiniyattam is not a mere reflection on the past but a guiding light to the future. Art forms, including Mohiniyattam, thrive when they embrace change, as emphasized by traditional Mohiniyattam gurus, the Chittappetuttals. Embracing change is essential, but it’s equally vital to balance the old and new, maintaining harmony with tradition.

We must avoid abandoning our artistic heritage in pursuit of novelty. The fusion of tradition and innovation is the way forward. The rich Thillana and vibrant colors must be preserved while embracing change to ensure the art form remains rich and dynamic.

The essence of Mohiniyattam’s presentation allows for evolution. It encompasses individuality, dynamism, acting styles, song renditions, costumes, and makeup. Acceptable changes should enhance without obstructing the artistic path, while the old ‘Thillana’ should not be forgotten.

As for my contributions, my Mohiniyattam journey started with a unique vision. In my 70s, I ventured into presenting Malayalam poems through dance, expressing nature’s and living beings’ emotions. Over time, I explored diverse themes, from Gopikas’ distinct emotions to expressing love for Krishna through Geetha Govindam. The dance world has witnessed a blossoming of creativity, inspiring the next generation.

As an artist, I embrace change. Change is not a hindrance but an opportunity to breathe fresh life into an ancient tradition. Mohiniyattam’s open-mindedness and freedom promise a bright future, ever evolving and enchanting.

In the world of connoisseurs, preferences vary. Some readily embrace change, while others seek the familiarity of the old. Feedback from diverse connoisseurs and critics, even when exploring dance forms from other states, ranges from appreciation to constructive suggestions.

Notably, critics have suggested incorporating old film songs into Mohiniyattam, which, while having merits, must be approached with care. Connoisseurs fall into three categories: those who offer simple appreciation, those who seek the guru’s style, and those who value creativity and uniqueness. The latter group expects imaginative choreography and presentation skills.

In Mohiniyattam’s musical landscape, experimentation is abundant, enhancing the dance’s expressive potential without diluting its essence. Variations in language, musical styles, and rhythms integrate seamlessly, showcasing the dance’s adaptability.

While pure dance may not always take center stage, context-appropriate movements play a vital role in storytelling. Serious students must grasp this concept and possess the freedom to adapt and explore. Providing students with creative freedom is essential.

A strong foundation in the basics is crucial. Mastery of fundamentals paves the way for innovative ideas. Mohiniyattam thrives on both dedication and adaptability. Students should nurture their independence and creativity within the art’s framework.

In conclusion, Mohiniyattam thrives on change and innovation while preserving its core tradition. Embracing change is crucial, but a delicate balance with tradition is key. This art form remains open to creativity, promising a bright future for artists and audiences alike. As artists and connoisseurs engage with this timeless tradition, they contribute to its ever-evolving tapestry, ensuring it remains a source of inspiration for generations to come.

The art column is based on an article written by Swetha Mangalath (myself) and originally published in the regional language in the Keleeravam Magazine for the International Kutiyattam & Kathakali Festival 2015.

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