‘My students are my wealth'
Youth fetes are a good thing but thery are just not enough for the future of performing arts.
Kalamandalam Vimala Menon.
For over four decades Kalamandalam Vimala Menon's name has been synonymous with the art of teaching and propagating classical Indian dances, especially Mohiniyattam, in Kerala. Since 1972, when she founded Kerala Natya Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, she has trained scores of students in Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, with many of them going on to win the coveted Kalaprathibha and Kalathilakam titles at youth fetes in the State. And through the youth fete track she was able to make certain changes to the costume and presentation of Mohiniyattam, most of which, she says, initially drew much flak, but which have since been accepted as standard practice. The diminutive teacher and performer was awarded the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award in 1991 and the Kendra Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award in 2006 for her services to Mohiniyattam. Excerpts from a chat with the artiste…
Taking to classical dance
As a child, while growing up in Irinjalakuda, I was enamoured by classical dance and music. I began learning classical dance when I was 10 years old from Thirupunithura Vijaya Bhanu and Carnatic music from Madhusuthanan Nair. In 1953 after seeing me perform ‘Kaliyamardhanam,' poet Vallathol Narayana Menon asked me to think about joining Kerala Kalamandalam. In my family it was then frowned upon to do something like that. But my mother Vishalakshy Amma, a keen classical vocalist and vainika, realised my interest in the arts and gave me the go ahead to join the institution (in 1960) for a four-year diploma course in Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam. At Kalamandalam I trained under Pazhayannoor Chinnammu Amma and Kalamandalam Sathyabhama Senior for Mohiniyattam and Thanjavoor Bhaskara Rao for Bharatanatyam. I soon realised that my body movements were more suited to Mohiniyattam than Bharatanatyam. Besides, I was keener on Mohiniyattam because it was Kerala's very own dance form, which badly needed to be propagated. Later on I also trained in Kuchipudi under Vempatti Chinna Satyam in Chennai.
Teaching rather than performing
Plainly speaking, I don't have the physique or the looks to stand out as a professional artiste. I am much better a teacher and a choreographer than a performer. My students are my wealth. It is through them that I choose to showcase my skills as a performer. That is the ultimate reward for a guru.
Innovations in Mohiniyattam
Over the years, I have been able to make a few modifications to the costume and presentation of Mohiniyattam. I went through a lot of hurdles and struggles because of that but today I am proud of the fact that those changes have come to be widely accepted. The dance form has always been one that was performed solo on stage. I introduced Mohiniyattam as a group item on stage. I have also modified certain adavus and mudras by introducing a touch of Kathakali to them. As for the costume, for performing the ‘Ashtapadi,' I introduced coloured blouses – red for Raudra bhava and green for Raasakeli. I also added a thin line of colour to the golden border of the attire. For competitions in 1982, my students wore the colours black, red, and orange blouses with golden borders.
I have also made a few changes to the accompanying percussion. I introduced the edakka to Mohiniyattam performances. Later on I added the thimila – an asura vadyam instrument (as opposed to the softer deva vadyam instruments such as mridangam and edakka) – to performances while depicting male characters, ferocious animals, and so on. The maddalam and thavil were introduced to give harmony to the percussion.
I also elaborated the ‘Pandattam' – a short, abhinaya-filled item in Mohiniyattam that depicts playing with a ball – as a 15-minute item accompanied by percussion instruments such as mridangam, thimila, maddalam, tavil, and edakka, played in succession. The item ends with the sloka ‘Santhakaram Bhujaga Sayanam' from the ‘Vishnu Sahasranamam,' with the dancer posing in Sree Padmanabha's Anantha sayanam style.
It is undoubtedly my choreography for Swati Tirunal's kriti ‘Bhavayami Reghu Ramam,' where I have depicted the Ramayana in seven scenes. It begins with a young Rama keeping Asuras at bay while Sage Viswamitra conducts his yagas and it ends with Rama's ‘Pattabhishekam' in Ayodhya after killing Ravana in Lanka.
Future of Mohiniyattam
Like most classical arts in Kerala, it's the youth festivals that are keeping Mohiniyattam alive among the younger generation. Youth fetes are a good thing but they are just not enough for the future of performing arts. Now that they've taken out the Kalaparthibha-Kalathilakam titles and started awarding grades instead of first place, second place…in competitions, I find that it is actually a little demoralising for the young performers. After all, who doesn't want to win? They would have worked hard enough for it as it is. The government needs to be much more proactive. Much like they help sportspersons get placements, why can't the Government support those who choose performing arts as a career? Not only would such a move be an incentive for people to take up performing arts but it would also ensure that the arts sustain themselves.
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