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Tryst with Mohiniyattam


Kanak Rele, celebrated dancer and Kalidas Samman awardee, talks about her work and research into the dance form.

Esoteric: Kanak Rele

MOHINIYATTAM is the lasya-rich, lyrical dance form that originated in Kerala. But strangely the only Kalidas Samman and two Padma awards conferred so far for its promotion have gone to non-Keralites. Of the two Padmasree awardees, Dr. Kanak Rele was selected for the coveted Kalidas Samman for 2005-2006.

True, the dance form can rightly claim an antiquity of more than three centuries. It witnessed a period of decadence after Swati Tirunal. But the assiduous efforts of poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, the founder of Kerala Kalamandalam, catapulted it to the centrestage during the 1930s. But the repertoire the institution evolved left much to be desired, for it was only a parody of Bharatanatyam.

Filming the art

"My tryst with Mohiniyattam occurred when all sorts of dirty insinuations were being heaped upon it," reminisced Rele. The dancer, already groomed in Kathakali by Guru "Panchali" Karunakara Panicker, found the absence of a well-knit scientific methodology frustrating.

Fortunately, she received a grant from the Sangeet Natak Akademi that enabled her ferret out what was left of the roots. Later using a grant from the Ford Foundation, she filmed all the surviving exponents including Kunjukutty Amma, Chinnammu Amma and Kalyanikutty Amma, in 1970-71.

Dr. Rele waxes eloquent while speaking about her documentation, which she claims is the only one and the most authentic. "Except Kalyanikutty Amma, the two others were octogenarians and had given up dancing; but they lived in the interior villages of Kerala, so their styles were unaffected by the winds of change and modernisation."

Her own style

By analysing these documentations, both audio and film, against the backdrop of Natyasastra, Hastalakshanadeepika and Balaramabharatam, she formulated an esoteric style known as the "Kanaka Rele School". Admittedly, the new style attracted flak. But she asks, "So what if Mohiniyattam had more schools like Bharatanatyam or Kathak?"

When it comes to arguments, she is very much the lawyer. (She has researched International Law at the University of Manchester, U.K.) She continued, "I have built my version on strong theoretical foundation. The `Kine-aesthetics' I propounded is based on body kinetics; I sought advice and assistance from experts belonging to all disciplines, including medical science to evolve this."

Nalanda Dance Research Centre, which she founded in1966, and Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalay established in 1972 are striking examples of her flair for pioneering work. While the former shows her zeal for studying the roots of classical dances, the latter was the first dance college to be affiliated to a university. No wonder that the President of India described her as "a pioneering dance educationist".

"The aesthetics of a dance form springs from the land of its origin," she said justifying the use of sopana sangeetham for her choreography. But, she hastened to add, "it is only the vocalisation of Carnatic music that assumes the sopana style in my works".

The themes of dances choreographed by her are always from mythology. And she has an uncanny ability to contemporise them — "Kubja", "Kalyani", "Silapadikaram", "Swapnavasavadattam". The Ministry of External Affairs has acquired "Nritya Bharati", a documentary of the seven Indian classical dances produced by Nalanda, as the official capsule for all Indian missions abroad. Dr. Rele described the Indian concept of abhinaya as "the most beautiful and complete language of movements through which the Indian dancer provides the concrete manifestation of the inner state and vision of his/her existence, of the truth of all experiences, by art."

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