mohiniyattam Dance

Mohiniyattam is a classical dance form of Kerala. Mohiniyattam is derived from the words “Mohini” (meaning beautiful women) and “attam”(meaning dance). Thus, Mohiniyattam dance form is a beautiful feminine style with surging flow of body movements. Mohiniyattam dance in Kerala developed in the tradition of Devadasi system, which later grew and developed a classical status.

The term Mohiniyattam comes from the words “Mohini” meaning a woman who enchants onlookers and “aattam” meaning graceful and sensuous body movements. The word “Mohiniyattam” literally means “dance of the enchantress”. There are two stories of the Lord Vishnu disguised as a Mohini. In one, he appears as Mohini to lure the asuras away from the amrita (nectar of immortality) obtained during the churning of the palazhi (ocean of milk and salt water).

In the second story Vishnu appears as Mohini to save Lord Shiva from the demon Bhasmasura. The name Mohiniyattam may have been coined after Lord Vishnu; the main theme of the dance is love and devotion to God, with usually Vishnu or Krishna being the hero. Devadasis used to perform this in temples. It also has elements of Koothu and Kottiyattom. Mohiniyattam is a drama in dance and verse.

Mohiniyattam is a solo female dance (in a single costume), where musical melody and the rhythmical swaying of the dancer from side to side and the smooth and unbroken flow of the body movement is the striking feature. The Mohiniattam dance focuses mainly on feminine moods and emotions. Usually, the theme of Mohiniyattam dance is “sringara” or love. Subtle subjects of love are executed with suggestive abhinaya, subtle gestures, rhythmic footwork and lilting music. The legend of Vishnu as “Mohini”, (the enchantress) forms the core of Mohiniyattam dance.

The credit for reviving the Mohiniyattam dance in the nineteenth century goes to Swati Tirunal. Swati Tirunal was an enlightened ruler of Travancore (Southern Kerala) and promoted the study of Mohiniyattam. Swati Tirunal composed many of the musical arrangements and vocal accompaniments that provide musical background for the Mohiniattam dancers. The noted Malayalam poet Vallathol, who established the Kerala Kalamandalam dance school in 1930, also played an important role in reviving the Mohiniyattam dance form.

The performers of Mohiniyattam dance usually wear an off-white colored sari with gold brocade borders. Hairs of the dancer are gathered in a bun and decorated with jasmine flowers. The Mohiniattam dancer is adorned with Gold Jewellery including necklaces, bangles, waistbands and anklets. The tinkling of the Jewellery produces music as the dancer performs the dance. Mohiniyattam dance is accompanied by musical instruments like violin, Veena and Mridangam and the dancer narrates episodes from the epics and legends through elegant steps, rhythmic movements of her arms and amazing facial expressions. The Hastha Lakshandeepika is a classical text and forms the basis of hands and arms movement in Mohiniyattam.

Mohiniyattam was popularised as a popular dance form in the nineteenth century by Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja of the state of Travancore (Southern Kerala), and Vadivelu, one of the Thanjavur Quartet. Swathi Thirunal promoted the study of Mohiniyattam during his reign, and is credited with the composition of many music arrangements and vocal accompaniments that provide musical background for modern Mohiniyattam dancers. The noted Malayalam poet Vallathol, who established the Kerala Kalamandalam dance school in 1930, played an important role in popularizing Mohiniattam in the 20th century.

The costume includes white sari embroidered with bright golden brocade (known as kasavu) at the edges. The dance follows the classical text of Hastha Lakshanadeepika, which has elaborate description of mudras (gestural expressions by the hand palm and fingers).

The dance involves the swaying of broad hips and the gentle movements of erect posture from side to side. This is reminiscent of the swinging of the palm leaves and the gently flowing rivers which abound Kerala, the land of Mohiniyattam. There are approximately 40 basic movements, known as atavukal.