For generations, Mohiniattam, an art form whose origins can be traced back to the provinces of Travancore and Cochin in Kerala, received great patronage from the royal families of the region until the censorships imposed by the colonial regime pushed this vibrant and vivacious performing art into obscurity. It was only in the 1930s when Mahakavi Vallathol established the Kerala Kalamandalam that Mohiniattam was brought out of the shadows and was established as an important style of movement.
“What the style really needs to survive thereafter is people practicing it,” remarks Mohiniattam exponent Mandakini Trivedi, “performing art gets life from living participation.”
Following Vallathol’s reinstitution of this Indian classical dance, it gained a firm footing in the southern state of Kerala alongside the performance and practice of Kathakali. However, even as the number of practitioners has risen over the last two decades, the classical dance continues to witness a dearth of students, opines Trivedi. And participation is crucial, she explains, because numbers and structure are the two most essential components for any performing art to endure through time. A style is established, she continues, when it is codified and its norms enunciated, and from there on, the dance can continue to evolve and thrive.
Trivedi, a graceful performer and an equally articulate writer, found her true calling in the performance of Mohiniattam, in spite of receiving extensive training in Bharatnatyam and went on to learn the art form under the tutelage of the prolific guru Dr Kanak Rele. As part of the National School of Performing Arts’ (NCPA) ADD ART Festival, the dancer, who also studied under stalwarts such as Kalyanikuttiamma, Kalamandalam Satyabhama, and Kalamandalam Leelamma, is now set to conduct a session on the nuances of style that will elaborate the subtle differences in movement that distinguish different repertoires from one another.
Says the danseuse, when nearly every Indian classical dance has several distinct styles of performance, where each one follows a different set of articulation and movement vocabulary, the question to be asked is: what is style?
Think of it as a cuisine, she answers and explains that through her session she will demonstrate how style is a ‘flavour of movement’ and draw from this analogy to lay out its various components: every style is a complex entity, complete with its own music, literature and its special body articulation. Trivedi also aims to make a part of the workshop a brief insight into style as a combination of both, nritta (technical movements) and nritya (expressive dance).
As for Mohiniattam, it borrows extensively from theatrical abhinaya or the art of expression employed in theatre, and its style, Trivedi says, is “a very wonderful combination of introverted pure dance movements and a very vibrant, vivacious and stylised mind.”
This is apparent in Trivedi’s treatment of the art form that involves storytelling through extensive gesticulation and intensely passionate abhinaya. Rightly so, the Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee describes the abhinaya of Mohiniattam as “detailed, graphic, intense,” one that makes a performer and her audience look within themselves. Traditionally a solo performing art, the dance is a very spiritual and pious undertaking, one of its prominent facets being the focus on rasanishpatti, the art of evoking powerful emotions in the minds of the viewers.
Consequently, Trivedi notes, the Mohiniattam's abhinaya more than makes up for the comparatively smaller nritta repertoire of the dance as opposed to that of Bharatnatyam or Kathak, which are teeming with technical compositions. It works at three levels, she notes, “At one level it is just a story, at another it has symbolism, and at a third level it has principles of yoga.”
On fusion and the dynamic guru-shishya parampara
“Can you eat pasta with coconut chutney?”
“Would you put cheese in your sambar?”
Trivedi asks, because that essentially is what fusion is, and ‘it can become quite a mess.’ Fusion, she says, is confusion.
“I don’t feel very excited about fusion, but then it depends, what you call fusion and what I call fusion might be two different things.” However, if the performance is able to strike at the very values of our art which are deeply spiritual and introverted, then she says, she wouldn’t question it.
Mohiniattam, akin to all Indian classical performing arts, is entrenched in the guru-shishya parampara. Trivedi says matter-of-factly, “India doesn’t know any other way of learning.”
What this teaching-learning method comprises of is the one-to-one learning of not only the technical aspects but also the values that govern an art form: that is what the gurukul is all about.
Guru-shishya parampara follows a certain hierarchy, she continues, but as sociological structures change, so does the practice of teaching. The norms of human interaction have undergone changes and this democratic approach has made the student-teacher relationship an idea where in every teacher decides her own boundaries: What do you want to stress upon? What are the protocols you want? How would you like to structure the relationship? The answers to these questions depend on individual choices which are in turn determined by social changes.
She also adds that somewhere it has become a kind of adjustment where the teacher walks five steps while the student walks only two. These are some of the challenges in front of the gurukul system, she notes, where each teacher learns from her experiences in the absence of written books or preset rules.
Trivedi illustrates this shift with an example: Our guru never praised us, she says, but this change is visible now where teachers often take to social media to praise their students. One always saw the role of the teacher as somebody who helps you to improve, point out where you went wrong. This she sees as a major change, where teachers are generous with their praise for their disciples on platforms such as Facebook, something which was absent in her own training. She, for one is glad of it.
Mandakini Trivedi's demonstration on the nuances of style will be held on 30 November 2019 at the Little Theatre, NCPA
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Updated Date: Dec 01, 2019 09:15:52 IST