Meeting Mohini - The Enchantress

On the origins of Mohiniyattam, a discussion

Ammini - It was soon time for the performance and I have to get ready. A dancer has to dress immaculately, as you will all agree and not only should the dress be pleasing, but should also be worn properly. And so I made sure that the nine foot long Onnara, the under garment, which we Nair women always wore, was first of all wound tightly. It had to be, or I would look too fat after the chela was worn. A little bit of makeup, some kanmashi, a dab of sindooram and a bit of powder completed the face. Then it was time to wear my anklets, the kaccamani, Oh! You know that men like that very much and its sensuous tinkle. The wearer has to tread softly, as my mother had taught me when I was little. She would always tell me, don’t look up or run, don’t be brash, walk softly and deliberately, Oh! How I miss her.

That was Ammini, but let’s leave her for now - I was lost in the past and my imaginations, for those were simply my thoughts going adrift, like a raft in the ocean…I was actually planning to study connections of medieval Kerala’s Mohiniyattam to Palghat. Many have attempted to trace the history of Mohiniyattam, only for yet another to restart again. Will I do the same? Perhaps, as I too have perused the subject for many months now, pored through many books and articles, seen a couple of documentary films - all in an effort to get to the bottom of it. Did I? You should decide after traversing the route together with me…

Experts would say that all music and all of dance has no singular origin. Somebody brings along something from a neighboring region and soon it is adapted to fit the local custom and traditions. Rightfully so. As we discussed in the Sopanam article, the tevaram style singing based on tamilakam pan raagas evolved into what we know as Sopanam. While Sopanam was sung in the temples, people listening to it made it one of the norms and everything was based on gods and their stories. In those times, the other contributor was folk music which people sang during festive and non-festive occasions. A combination of these two created the music for entertainment of the public in the Koothambalam attached to the temple, though the folk combination was minimal. As regards dance, well, the contributor in those times was the dasiyattam practiced in temples of the south, dasiyattam performed by traveling troupes from the tamilakam and coming to the Palakkad region through the pass, the local koothus like nangiar koothu, krishnattam, ottamthullal, kaikottikali and so on. Without a strict definition behind it, Mohiniyattam evolved.

Ammini continues - My ears hurt, I really do not know who came up with the idea of the toda, and I hated the large holes in my ears. Yes, the large gold todas that I wore in those holes are perhaps attractive, but they were so different from those dasi attakaris of tamilakam who wear something called kundalam, I have to try and get them soon for they look nicer and lighter,  as it happens, I saw it on the attakari from Kannambra Nair’s tharavadu. You see, I myself am attached to the Manjapra tharavadu, not far from Kannambra. But I do have the mooku valayam which I wear. Actually I hate them, they hurt my nostril so much. The other day I was thinking, what If I wore it on my right nostril instead of the left…Krishna Krishna, it would be preposterous!!

The hair came next. I always wear them in a plait behind me and adorn a lot of jasmine flowers, and my cousin sister helps me ensure it is orderly and tight. I wear a netti chutti next and as I always did, I wore the nagapadam, the mohinimala and the chutti pathakkam (carefully setting the surya chandranmar) and the mudukku which my grandmother gave me. And of course, one should not forget the beauty spots to ward off the evil eye, you know how it is, there are so many out there in the audience who are capable of casting evil looks, especially that poojari from the mariamma kovil. I put an itsy bitsy one with kanmashi on my left chin, not too small, not too large. The other day Kannan Nair was telling me that it looked cute, he is an idiot, he just wants to flatter me and take me to bed…the lecher…

The light in the room is not at all enough, if only we could dress outdoors, but today it is a little late. The dark walls or floor of the mud house don’t help in making the room any brighter. The randhal is no good, maybe I should tell ammama to get a petromax, like the ones the British people carry.

Like most art, musicians and dancers need patrons. The smallest patron is the local feudal lord, and the biggest is the king or Valia thamburan. The route from the bottom to the top in medieval Kerala was dependent on the power of the feudal lord and the number of Nairs he commanded. Not all of the big patrons had interest in arts, only some did and that is the simple reason why a dance form like mohiniyattam flourished at times in certain places, sank to decadence during others or stagnated in between.

Medieval Kerala had some major regions and of course many small principalities. The major regions were Kolathunaad to the North, Mid Malabar lorded by the Zamorin, Palghat and Cochin under the Cochin king and finally Venad or Travancore. The Zamorins were clear in supporting only Krishnattam, a form developed by them. There are no instances of other art forms being promoted in his territory. The Palakkad achan was not very powerful but somewhat influenced by tribal and Tamil traditions, whereas the Cochin raja who lorded him was. They have a tradition of supporting various music and art forms, what with an influx of all kinds of foreigners in their kingdom. The Venad rajas were influenced heavily by Tamil tradition, music and art forms. Dasiyattam was prevalent in both Travancore and Cochin regions and kathakali was slowly taking root as popular public fare.

Ammini - I hate the lengthy process of tying the 16 muzham long (24 ft) white mallu Chela vasthram and the rouka, to get the mel-kasavu and keezh –kasavu right is not easy, but then I have my cousin to help and she knows what to do, only it takes forever while I sweat. Then comes the brass udyanam which I love, hopefully someday I will find a Namboothiri to get me a gold one.  I have to call that nephew of mine, Koman and tell him to bring the hand fan. With a 24 foot cloth over a 9 foot onnara, and that too during the summers at Palakkatchery, one can get more than stifled. Koman my 14 years old nephew will do the fanning part happily, because he likes sitting there and looking at me. And I have seen the wrong thoughts in his eyes at times. Can’t blame him, he is getting to that age when boys will soon become men. I wear my finger rings next, I wear my upper arm snake bangles, and dab a little bit of coconut oil to smooth down my hair. I hate my curly hair, look that that attakari at Kannambra, she has straight hair. Since I am fair, I put on very little of that rice flour based make up. Kanakam does though. She adds more manayola (yellow) and less cayilyam (red) to the aripodi paste.

The whole of last week was fun, for the kuruppattayar had come for our uzhichil…massage. You noticed the word ‘our’ right? Well out troupe consists of the haughty Kanakamma – haughty because she is onnamkita, but I look better for sure. And we have the young girl Neeli, a moonam kita. Three of us, the dancers. This year we start our performances locally and we may move on later to other places, I do not know where, only the Nattuvan and the karanavar at Mannapra know.

But how does Mohiniyattam fit in? Was it an offshoot of Dasiyattam or Kathakali? Was it influenced by them? Or is it a latter day version of the nangiar koothu, Kummi or other Tamil dance traditions? That there would be similarities between one and the other is quite clear, but my mind forced me to dig deeper and deeper to find out when and how it all started. I am not sure I reached anywhere, but I did come across a few tidbits which were illuminating.

Tracing the known route, we see that it was performed sporadically in the past, was then supported heavily by the Travancore Rajas, and after Swati Tirunal’s demise, slipped into a state of decadence. It acquired a very bad reputation and was eventually banned in the Cochin state, mainly because the dancers originated from regions controlled by Cochin. Kathakali rose to the fore and Mohiniyattam declined to the depths. Finally when poet Vallathol established the Kalamandalam in 1930’s, the dance was revived and today considered an appealing and popular art form of Kerala. Many foreigners, interestingly Americans, continue to learn and write about it.

I could start with the mythical aspects, but then this would turn out to become prose too lengthy for anybody, especially the story of Mohini, or for that matter more appropriately the Narayani movement, Yellama or Renuka movement and Parasurama all of which could have some impact in dance forms of Kerala. I am also deliberately not getting into a detailed discussion on Dasiyattam, the Travancore Padamangalam Dasis, Manipravalam poems, and Bharatanatyam, an area which others have covered eminently, but suffice to say that all of them provided inputs to this Kerala dance form.

Nanditha Prabhu
Let us first look at the printed media out there, dealing with Mohiniyattam. Almost all writers were Mohiniyattam performers and this would mean that they would stay true to their teachers and school. All of them were people who trained from the first teachers and students of the Kalamandalam School. Virtually every one of them and I can assure you that I perused every single one of those books, take off and follow the original research conducted and recorded by Betty True Jones who came to Kerala in 1959 to train under Thottasseri Chinnammu Amma while her husband Clifford Jones concentrated on Kathakali research.

Betty traces the mythical origins of Mohini, the efforts of Vallathol and Kalyani Amma, Krishna  Panikkar and Kunhikutti amma and Chinammu Amma. She emphatically establishes the fact that almost all Mohiniyattam dancers belonged to the Nair caste, and that they performed for their Nambudiri patrons and the most desirable of them became consorts of these rich patrons. She explains that much of this dance form’s development could be attributed to the 17th century, side by side with Krishnattam and Kathakali.In this way this was less of a temple art form and more of a leisure art form for richer patrons, which of course explains the emphasis on lasya and not bhakti. After the Mysore Sultan invasion destabilized North Malabar during the 18th century, arts and artistes shifted to the more stable Travancore and Cochin. The decline occurred with the strengthening of the British, the development of a British/Christian influenced school system and the imposition of new moral standards and various other social changes to the old feudal structure. The art simply collapsed and went into obscurity.

We see all authors referencing payments to Mohinyattam dancers in the Vyavaharamala, and its prose commentary dated 1809. It may be noted here that most books place it at 1709 wrongly due to a mistake which Ulloor later corrected. There is mention in Kunjan Nambiyar’s Ghoshayatra set at Ambalapuzha in the 18th century (the region where kathakali was born) and of buxom Mohiniyattam dancers.

Nanditha Prabhu
Betty goes on to explain that Mohiniyattam dancers were drawn from kaikottikali troupes, and establishes that most Nair girls learn the steps of this dance at home. Some of these chosen girls, from lesser families usually, joined up with a leading local nattuvan, trained rigorously during the monsoon season and travelled around during the dry seasons to conduct performances. Most importantly it is an abhinaya nrittam and interpretation of the poem in facial expressions and mudras have to be done in the most pleasing and a somewhat sensuous fashion (lasya).

And Betty establishes that nattuvans as well as dancers originated from villages around Palghat, such as Korattikkara, Pazhayannaur, Peringiottukurissi etc and performed between Kodappara in the south and Kattanadu in the North. She explains that the dancers came from poorer Nair families. Augmenting this thought, MGS Narayanan in his article cited under references opines that some of the old time Devadasis merged into the lower echelons of Nair society. Geetha in her prose adds other places in Palghat to the list such as Ottapalam, Mankara, Chatannur and Kozhalmannam.

Lemos concentrates on anthropological matters in her thesis and focuses mainly on matriliny, sambandham and the such while touching on the lasya aspects and the decadence of Mohiniyattam but traversing a route similar to the one taken by Betty jones. In the course of her study, she reaffirms that the dancers were from Lakkidi, Korattikara and Pazhayannur. She also establishes that it was indeed outlawed in Cochin with a promulgation in 1936 and that it was performed in the various manas or bigger estate homes and that it was primarily for the entertainment of wealthy landlords. What I could not quite understand was her conclusion based on an opinion of MGS that the matrilineal inheritance system was conducive to dance development, with the argument that independence for women came about due to their power over inheritance matters. She analyses the fictional dance recital narrated in Meenakshi written by Chattu Nair and shows how the decadence had deteriorated to the Mukutti culminating in a lap dance of sorts in certain cases, by the 20th century.

An interesting input comes from Madhavan Kutty’s ‘The village before time’…where he mentions how one Ramakrishnan Nair wanted to establish a Sambandham with Vazhakottu Meenakshi because she had learnt Mohiniyattam. Vazhakode by the way is near Ottapalam, in Palghat.

Venu and Nirmala trace its origin from Tiruvathirakkali, basing it on a number of steps used and explain that the decadence was due to excessive patronage for kathakali after which the dancers of Mohiniyattam stooped low enough to include items like Polikali and Mukkuthi which were techniques of going through the audience and extracting money from them. They too confirm the medieval confinement of Mohinyattam dancers to Palghat and bordering areas of Trichur

Bharati Shivaji equates Lasya with grace rather than erotica, and traces its origin to the 12th century as a tangential development of dasiyattam or Kuttachiattam. As Malabar was a region favoring abhinaya, the dance development took a desi (not margi) course through natyam with abhinayam, making it different from the other dances.

Sugandhavalli Bayi - Early costume
Almost all writers concur that while Mohinyattam had its similarities with some moves in Bharatanatyam and mudras of Kathakali as well as similarities in music and costumes with some other dance forms such as Kaikottikali, Nangiar Kuthu and so on, it was in reality a different dance, not performed for a deity but for entertainment. MKK Nayar concurs that Dasiyattam and Nangiar Kuthu together formed inputs for Mohiniyattam. Geetha explains that while Siva danced the Tandava, Parvathi danced the lasya and that Sringara or the sentiment of love, the king of emotions is the mainstay of the dance. It focuses on both the Sambhoga and Viprlamba sringara types, the former the joy of union and the latter the loss of separation. This has to be expressed and elaborated with Abhinaya and this is the main aspect of the dance form as compared to others which tell a story fully.

Shovana Narayan links Ashtapadi, Geeta Govinda and Sopana Sangeetham to Mohiniyattam and how the verses become an indivisible part of the dance. She also mentions that Mohinyattam was part of the Kathakali repertoire, especially when feminine roles were performed.

Reformist novelist C Chatu Nayar writing in 1891 of course presents the dance in a bad light, in his novel and this has been critically analyzed by Lemos. Nayar may not have been factual, but if one were to take his writing at face value you can see Mohiniyattam at its lowest ebb, it could be described a recital comprising three dancers, of which two of the musicians were also their husbands and the third was the wife of the owner, an old Nair gentlemen who would do anything for money. The protagonist witnesses the tail end of the recital, not having seen any Mohiniyattam pieces, but only the Poli kali which is a chirpy number where the audience throws in money at the dancers ( like in a seedy bar dance) and the dancers incite the audience with erotic gestures, moves and looks. (Lemos analyses this as integral to Mohinyattam which it was NOT – Poli kali is actually a Bhagavathy dance that was included by later day troupes to get the audience to cough up money, just like the Mukutti dance where the dancer loses a nose ring and she goes around, teasing specific individuals in the audience in a sensuous way). Nayar also establishes that these troupes had a very bad image by then and after the dance the dancers shared the bed of the people who invited them for the recital. He considers it a kind of prostitution. It is also stated elsewhere in the book that some dancers sat in the laps of rich patrons and allowed themselves to be fondled. But I think we all agree that it was the decadent variety and not what it once was or it presently is. From the book it also becomes clear that there girls are the ones called tevadichi (devadasi – Thevaradi achi) and kuttachi (folk dancer) and that it is equated to one with very loose morals, with the high ground established by the Christian morality prevalent (Chatu nair himself was trained so and professes it right through the book (The discussion between the husband who wants to sleep with the girls - and his wife, is very interesting in this regard). He then emphasizes that Kathakali on the other hand is a pure dance form.

Note here that the Dasiyattam tradition prevalent in Venad and the tradition brought in by the Padi girls of Cochin who danced the Mohiniyattam at the Althara Bhagawathi temple had also declined to a low level by now. It is possible that the devadais of Venad started to include Mohiniyattam recitals in their repertoire which led to people thinking that Dasiyattam evolved into Mohinyattam. If that were the case, there would be no reason for it to have been concentrated around Palghat and for the summoning of the dancers from Palghat for important performances.

Kanak Rele goes a step further to state that it did have links to the Tamil Avinaya Kuttu which had become extinct early, but remained popular in Cheranaad. She quotes KP Pisharodi stating that these Palghat villages had an influx of people through the Palghat gap from the Tamilakam some 600 years or more, ago, during the Muslim invasions. However I am still not convinced if they then created a starta of lower division Nairs by marriage, though very much possible.

Nirmala Panikkar views Mohiniyattam as a development of Tevedichiattam which lost popularity in temples and was renamed Mohiniyattam in the 14th -15th century. But that does not explain how the dancers originated mainly from one locale and comprised Nairs. In a more recent article in narthaki, she opines “The items that got excluded at Kerala Kalamandalam were Polikali, Kurathy, Easal, Chandanam, Mukkuthy and Kummy. All these items are connected with the Kurathy (goddess) cult of ancient Kerala. This led to a situation that the Desi traditions were conspicuous by their absence in the repertoire and later on to a lot of controversies on the esoteric Kerala traits of Mohiniyattam. The indigenous and ancient Kurathy connection of Mohiniyattam will remove all the controversies on the origin and the Kerala identity of this art form. Kurathys are always considered as connected with magical powers, and in Kerala, Kurathy is considered as one of the oldest forms of goddess Bhagavathy”.

So who really thence elevated Mohiniyattam from a dance form once popular in the Palghat – Trichur regions, to a popular dance form? Was it Swati Tirunal, his mother Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, his consort Sugandha Parvathi nee Sugandhavalli or was it the Tanjavur quartet, specifically Vadivelu nattuvan? To get to that aspect, we have to study the mathialkom manuscripts collected by Govindan Nair and Dr Pushpa.

Before we start on this it must be noted that Travancore had dasiyattam dances and many a Padamangalam dasi is mentioned in historical records, but not as Mohiniyattam dancers, per se. That this had an impact in the style of Mohiniyattam subsequently is also apparent. The BBH mentions Mohininatanam during Karthika Tirunal’s time and some opine that perhaps this was the period when it evolved from Dasiyattam and was also later influenced by the Talinaga traditions. Karthika Thirunal. It is said that Balarama Varma, the nephew of Marthanda Varma and the then Maharaja of Travancore, appointed Karuthedathu Chomathiri to make an art-form somewhat similar to dasiyattam. Here again, I could comment that the Chomathiri’s usually hailed from the Nila region.

The BBH critic opines that Swati Tirunal did not create the dance form, but encouraged it and composed several padams in Malayalam for the use in Mohiniyattam, and that Kartika Tirunal maharajah was perhaps behind it. But that would preclude it from going to Palghat, and remaining there and there only. Ramachandran writing about Manorama Thamburati explains - Rama Varma has said that it was written after a careful study of Lasya Tantra. It gives details of hastas (hand gestures), angas (major limbs), Upangas(minor limbs)and Pratyangas (neck, wrists, knees, thighs). It is considered by most of the Mohiniyattam scholars as an important treatise on technicalities of Mohiniyattam, because, one of the earliest references to Mohiniyattam, is in Balaramabharatam. The popular danseuse and scholar, Methil Devika, differs in this, saying the treatise refers, not to Mohiniyattam, but Mohininatanam; it means only the stance that Mohini takes. But Devika too acknowledges the role of Manorama, saying her correspondence with Rama Varma is historical. The fact remains, no Mohiniyattam thesis is there without mentioning the Rama Varma-Manorama Jugalbandi. Palace records show expenditure on Mohiniyattam, as early as 1801, hinting at the efforts of Rama Varma, much before Swati Thirunal.

We find that during the period of Gowri Parvathi Bayi (1815 – 1829) four Mohiniyattam dancers performed in the Natakasala of the palace. We also note that in 1820 one Ayappa Panikkar who came from Palghat with the dancers remained and trained 4 new (local?) dancers in the art of Mohiniyattam. These girls were well compensated by the palace and so recorded. Does the name Ayappa Panikkar show a connection to N Malabar and Nangiar Kuthu?? Perhaps.

Continuing on, we see that the Travancore regents paid Varkala Anantharama Baghavathar for his Mohiniyattam troupe during 1831, showing that the dance had found its place in Travancore. This continues to the next year and we see the appearance of Parameswara Bhagavathar from Palghat in 1832. Five years late he is still there and getting handsome emoluments, and we notice Paravur Lakshmikutti a regular mohiniyattam dancer in the palace also getting rewarded. Two years later we see the arrival of Mohiniyattam exponent Kalkulam Bhaskara bhagavathar, and we see Mohiniyattam nattuvan Sankara Menon in the court. Paravur Lakshmi is still there, getting monies for her home renovation. By 1840, a time when Swati Tirunal is ruling, Parameswara Bhagavather’s third marriage is amply supported by the court, showing how important he was. The court records make fine reading with the details of so many dancers, singers and instrumentalists performing in his court. We can safely assume that Mohiniyattam blossomed and Swati’s innumerable padams (also those by Iraviyamman Thampi and Parameswara Iyer) found enchanting expressions in the dance form. The records show no participation of the Tanjavur quartet or the Tanjavur dasis in this art form or its development. However there are other indications that the quartet, especially Vadivelu brought in some influences on the Chollukettu from the Shabdam of Sadir.

It is said that post Swati, Parameswara Bhagavathar retired to Palghat and promoted Mohiniyattam there. But then again, we know that the first Mohiniyattam dancers in 19th century Travancore arrived from Palghat, so while he may have retired to Palghat, what is unclear is if he had anything to do with the dance or if he just concentrated on vocal music at Palghat, post retirement. Perhaps after the loss of patronage in Travancore, Mohiniyattam slipped down to the lower echelons and had only some naduvazhi’s in Palghat promoting the art.

Eventually we get to the dance as we known it today and the work done eminently by Kerala kalamandalam, Vallathol, Mukunda Raja and its earliest dancer gurus. Nanditha Prabhu explains - Kerala Kalamandalam was registered in 1927 and the first Mohiniyattam Kalari started in 1932. O. Kalyaniyamma, Appuredathu Krishana Panicker, Madhaviyamma and Madhava menon were the initial mentors who tried to revive Mohiniyaṭtam. In 1950 Tottassery Cinnammu amma joined Kerala Kalamandalam as Mohiniyaṭtam tutor. Her senior disciple Kalamandalam Sathyabhama carried forward this tradition from 1956. A major milestone for the dance form was a Seminar organised by Kerala Kalamandalam in 1968 which lead to further reconstruction of Mohiniyaṭtam. This was the period when Mohiniyaṭtam developed a distinct style which can be called the Kalamandalam style. Kalyanikuttiamma, though one of the earlier students at Kalamandalam developed a style of her own when she started her own institution in 1958 and contributed extensively to develop a pedagogy by defining the Angika aspect of Mohiniyaṭtam. Her contributions gave rise to the Kalyanikuttiamma style of Mohiniyaṭtam.

According to Bharati Shivaji, a leading exponent, four styles are in vogue these days, Kalamandalam style, Kalyani Kutty style, Kanak Rele style and Bharati Shivaji styles. While Kalyanai Kutti’s style is exact, specific and definite, the kalamandalam style is more lyrical. Rele’s is more based on natyasastra, whereas Bharati’s as she explains it, was developed through research, reconstruction and amalgamation of a range of Kerala art forms, where she expanded the movement vocabulary of Mohiniattam, as also its repertoire

Vinod Mankara’s documentary – traverses the routes into the past going all the way to Vijayanagara, Tanjore, Travancore and along the way. He concludes that it was a dance which was always there, represented regionally in different forms and one which evolved over time. Lyrical and beautifully made, it provides a good perspective for a beginner wondering about Mohiniyattam’s origins (His Kalyani btw was the inspiration for my Ammini!). Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s documentary also traces the path of a student, but I saw only some clips from it, not the full movie.

I am not sure that the description of my journey of discovery through all these secondary sources traced any conclusive connection of the dance to Palghat, but the fact remains that the Nila region was home to many a Mohiniyattam danseuse and asans during the 1800-1900 time frame. Today we see variations with new padams, tunes and ragas, as gurus pick up new inputs from their travels around the world. The days of Ammini are long gone, but then again, to get a feel of the days when families lounged on the floor and watched the dancers sway in the dim light of a hurricane lamp, with live music, read on…

Ammini  - I am ready, I still have markings of the mailanji on my hands, I have mailanji on my feet and the small arammula mirror I got when we went south the other day for a performance, tells me that my face looks pretty. Sadly the mirror is not big enough for me to see all of myself. My cousin Lakshutti also tells me that I look good. There is only her for company these days, after my mother died of fever many days ago. I can hear my uncle bellowing across the parambu at the field workers, not that the harvest is any good this year, better to finish off and be ready before he comes in after his dip in the pond, ready to take me to the Ambala parambu where the others would come soon.

So as you know already, my name is Amminikutty and I am 17 years old. I like dancing, I don’t really dance for the gods, I don’t dance for the feudal lords though that is what it is all about these days, I don’t get involved in the requests for sambandham after the dances, at least not yet, though Ammama would encourage me to meet the right person from the right illam. I love to dance to the music of my land, especially when Chandu sings it a little different from the kottipaadi seva at the Thiruvilwamala temple. That is when I can forget the poverty, I can forget the difficult life I have, in the clamor of the applause and get lost dancing for the lilting andolika gamakams. Or perhaps it is because I like Chandu too much, but well…that’s another story…

I became a Mohiniyattam dancer after seeing the attakaris at kannambra. The steps were fascinating, the music was soothing and I liked the way the nettuvan treated and trained the dancers.  I decided to learn from him. That was 4 years ago. It took me a while and I am now a randam kita dancer, but am not sure if I will ever become Onnam kita. I am a popular dancer because I am pretty, dance well and still single. Usually an attakari dances for about 5 years and eventually finds the right patron to marry and settle down, you see, that is the best we can do and it is better than marrying some laborer chosen by ammama. There is nobody left in my family and ammayi is bedridden with something ailing her chest. They say she will die soon. Somebody has to earn, correct? And I do not hate dancing or my life, anyway……..

I must stop now, ammama has come and we will go in the kalavandi to the mannapra koothambalam today. Nattuvan Raman, Othukaran Chandu and Thootikaran Keluvaar (he is a Tamizhan) will be there by the time I reach. I am ready for my performance………… Are you??


Mohiniyattam - A dance tradition of Kerala - Betty True Jones
Devadasi system in Kerala – MGS Narayanan
Bracketing lasya: An ethnographic study of Mohiniyattam dance - Lemos, Justine Alexia
Balaramabharatam BBH– Easwaran Nampoothiri
The art of Mohiniyattam – Bharati Shivaji
Mohiniyattam – The lasya dance – G Venu, Nirmala Panikkar
Mohiniattam – Geetha Radhakrishnan
Nangiar Kuthu – Nirmala paniker
Classical arts of Kerala – MKK Nayar
Social status of courtesans in medieval Kerala – M Sumathy
Indian classical dance – Shovana narayanan
Mohiniyattam – Kanak rele
Charitrathinde edukal – K Govindan Nair, Dr B Pushpa
Swati Tirunal – N Balakrishnan nair
Meenakshi – C Chatu Nair
Mohiniyattam – MKK Nayar
Mohiniyattam papers – Sugandhavalli Bayi & Nanditha Prabhu
Stylistic variations in Mohiniyattam – Nandita Prabhu
Nitya Kalyani (DVD) –Documentary by Vinod Mankara
La Danse De L’Enchanteresse (France, 2007) Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Maddys ramblings previous articles – Sopana Sangeetham, From Krishnattam to Kathakali, Tanjore and its Carnatic music legacy, The Tanjavur Quartet, Ammini Ammal’s story

My account on Ammini Ammal and her travel to Europe is perhaps a good reference for perspective.

I must, above all, thank my friend, scholar and accomplished dancer Nanditha Prabhu who provided me valuable reference material, so much of support and critical advice.

My humble thanks to Methil Devika (I don’t know her) who was the real reason for this ‘feeble’ study which took me a very long time and perusal of so many books and resources. When my wife directed me to one of her articles, I was somewhat piqued by her words. Those words however encouraged me to delve into this complex topic which I did, over the course of which I unearthed some details of Sopana Sangeetham which I had posted earlier. I also learned some basic nuances of a now defunct raga named Samantha Malhari and I eventually started to understand Devika’s direction.

However, I found it difficult to agree with some of Lemos’s conclusions in her fine thesis, though the direction she took and the painstaking research are commendable, and I believe it is not impertinent to suggest that like minded researchers also read KM Panikkar’s ‘Some aspects of Nayar Life’, a short explanatory booklet written by a Nair, to understand medieval Nairs a little better.  I am in no way qualified to make criticisms, but the history, culture and behavior of Nairs is quite complicated to most people.

Pics - Nanditha Prabhu, with permission, Smita Rajan, granddaughter of Kalyanikutti amma, fromWikimedia commons


And they got married

The reassuring click of the seatbelt was the thing which jump started ruminations on the month long visit to India. The plane was about to commence its 15,000km trip westwards (with a transit stopover in Dubai) and I slipped into a long and slow train of thoughts, snaking through those marvelous thirty days like a meter gauge train, remnant from the days of the Raj.

Squabbles at and about the Calicut airport had ensured that I would  neither land nor take off from our home airport, and we were moved to neighboring Cochin. Ironic isn’t it, for that was exactly what happened since the first wars between the Vasco da Gama and the Zamorin of Calicut dating back to 1500’s, with the Cochin Raja winning a bulk of the spice trade. During a long layover at Dubai’s teeming airport, I idly watched the masses troop into the latest sin-city of the world, while the many who toiled at the airport kept it spick and span. The guy sitting next to me turned out to be a Pakistani living in Australia, visiting his home in Lahore. People from two ends of the world, moving towards opposing countries in South Asia, and chatting at the only neutral zone, Dubai!!!

The monsoon over Kerala had been delayed and much weakened with the dipole people having a field day, triumphing their dire forecasts. It was in this atmosphere that I set foot at Cochin and drove with a Moplah driver Sartaj to Calicut. A pleasant chap, he updated me on all that was happening in ‘gods own country’. He was totally amused when I, coming all the way from USA chose an ordinary eating place and ordered Malabar Porota and egg curry over other fancy dishes. When I explained that the freshly made Porota was one thing not available in the US, he was mystified, for he said ‘my mother makes it often at home, why can’t you people do it’? Then he wised up and added, I know, it is because you cannot get the right flour in America, in fact my mom struggles to find it here!!! Anyway he was an enthusiastic talker, and happy that Ramadan was around the corner after which he would get married and buy his own Innova taxi car. He was not sure though if he would let his ‘dentist to be fiancée’ work, and I had a tough time trying to persuade him to not even think of keeping her at home. He was more worried about care for his ageing mother. So you see, yet another chap, modern outside, but conservative inside!

And with that I had made my entry into my old haunts, and as the Toyota Innova car sped through new roads, much nicer than the old potholed roads once frequented by the majestic Ambassador taxi, I could not help but notice development and building work everywhere. Sleepy half towns had metamorphosed to busy towns, with garishly painted high-rises and everywhere you could see the influence of money sent by workers working in the Gulf. Large boards advertised Kuzhi mandi, a Yemeni form of Biriyani which seems to be the ‘in thing’ in Malabar, which Sartaj quickly added was not so tasty, but just something new.

A five hour drive took us to our destination at Calicut where I joined my wife who had arrived earlier and other relatives. The house was abuzz with the impending marriage of my wife’s nephew and various other long pending estate matters related to my mother-in-law’s untimely demise last year which still had to be sorted out. The bags were quickly unpacked and soon I was out in new garbs, a white dhoti and a half sleeved shirt. My old ‘kalan’ umbrella was taken off of its resting hook, and thus clad, I became a local once again, though my brother in law gently reminded me that nowadays people wore the dhoti only for ceremonious occasions. But then, who cared?

I had a week at Calicut before the next event, and this was spent touring the various book stalls scouring for new history books. My niece was a trifle unhappy as she had been allocated a seat for BA history, not a subject of her choice, and my attempts at persuading her to go for it, if only to follow my passion, fell on deaf ears. Her mother quickly added that it would be a disaster and everybody at home would have to live with yet another bore with an astonishing capacity to elicit a yawn from a person who had just imbibed two tumblers of chicory laced south Indian coffee. As my wife fretted over the tailors of Calicut and their poor quality, I went about collecting books. A few kilograms of books were quickly purchased, much to her disgust (she warned me that bag space was reserved for all the stuff she was going to buy and books were only secondary) as I looked the other way. Some real estate matters had to be sorted out and discussions with lawyers and chartered accountants took the rest of our time in Calicut.

With that done and dusted, we moved on to Palakkad. Sartaj was again the driver and it was his first visit to the interior villages near the ghats. Amazed at the green fields and a completely unspoilt locales, he could only wonder if such places existed. Well, Pallavur, where we were going to, still had just one school, a temple, a post office, a bank and perhaps three or four shops serving perhaps two thousand people. Here again an event was in the offing and was the reason why we were there, this being my own nieces wedding to a cousin from another leg of the extended family.

Pallavur - Photo Arun
Ah, I can write reams and reams about this small village and its people. It is still the same place about which I had written many a time earlier and you all can see a view from this fine panoramic picture taken by my second son.  I saw now that many people I knew were all ageing, and a number of younger offspring were appearing for functions and on the roads. The mosquitoes were still there and our cans of ‘off’ repellent quickly proved popular with the many who had come from various parts of the world for the wedding. The mosquitoes were not too happy I suppose, but I assure you my friends, they are quite clever. If we sprayed our exposed surfaces, which they normally frequented, they would spend an extra minute buzzing around to locate a hidden vein or artery far from the chemicals, like near the ear or on the face or through the fine muslin dhoti, with a vengeance to make you swear and jump. The wafting hands of the hapless visitor originally planning a quiet sojourn in the easy chair was a sure sign of the angry mosquito at work, unhappy at being kept away by the nasty chemical. The decibels of chatter rose up and down with some amount of irregularity and was interspersed with the drone of the Anopheles or the Culex species, with or without the Dengue virus……

The village temple beats and music had started, as it was soon time for the evening prayers, and my brother informed me that the one person I was looking forward to meet, drummer Sridharan (Appu marar’s progeny) was touring USA, with a Kathakali troupe. I was planning on discussing some facets of the Kerala music style Sopana Sangeetham with him actually…

But all that was soon forgotten as wedding discussions took precedence, we still had to invite a few more people the old fashioned way, visiting individual homes, and my cousin and I this time around, visited the homes of all the people who worked for us in the past as well as the Tamil Chetty dwellings in the village. Vaithi pattar arrived and prepared a number of goodies, laddus, mixture, mysore-pak and jelebis, for occasional consumption.

The food was catered from a nearby supplier and some 40 guests (including a few from the North) were expected for a week until the wedding. Shamiana’s were erected in front of the ancestral house and the bridegroom’s house, which conveniently was neighboring.

And the rains came, well, not just so, it poured. Indra had really released all those waters held captive by Vritrasura, I suppose, but what a relief it was as it cooled the place considerably, from a 90 degrees, 90% RH to a more tolerable level.

The visitors came the next day, to experience Kerala and the rains, and as ill-luck would have it, one of the girls fell into the nadumittam in the nalukettu, right on the first day. The limping girl, a newly wed bride promptly latched on to her doting husband’s hands for the next few days and never let go. But I can tell you, they all enjoyed the rain, they enjoyed the village and they cared a hoot about the mosquitoes. I think they relished the food too…

We had a lot to do for I was to help compere the Sangeeth event planned to happen before the wedding. I was soon introduced to Reshma, my nephew’s wife, who was the chief planner of the Sangeeth (they had only been married a few months ago). Pad and pen, and later a laptop at hand, we set about charting the activities covering the intros, music and dances. The DJ was to come from neighboring Coimbatore.

As the hours sped by, more relatives trooped in and out. Discussions ranged from politics to family issues, films, songs and so on and so forth. I was sitting smugly with just the task of supporting with the compering of the event when a bombshell was dropped, that we had to partake in a few dances. No amount of excuses could get me out of it, for only a month previously I had been hauled up on stage in Ohio by Rimi Tomy (a popular show host and now an actress) and made to dance a few steps. This video had passed around members of the family (snigger worthy!) and was used effectively as a tool to get me to participate. So hiding all the fear and nervousness, I cast away the dhoti and donned a pair of Bermuda’s to join the groups for dance practice (Shoba was also pulled in). All the fear was soon gone, for such was the enthusiasm of the older and younger participants. The choreographers (the bridegroom Vineth and his brother Ajith) were of Bollywood class (being from Bombay!) and they took us through some steps to create a semblance of a performance which the onlookers were quick to appreciate and assure were of watchable quality. Looking back, how I enjoyed those four days with those young people. I was then reminded of the fascinating novel Drifter’s by James Michener and at many an occasion likened myself to George Fairbanks in the novel.
At Ullattil
The hours flashed by, and the heady preparations rose to a crescendo, as the dancing improved and the walls started to shake when the volume of the speakers increased. New technologies such as iPad’s, coupled with Bluetooth and wi-fi helped get the music blaring when needed. A newly married couple, friends of the bridegroom from Bombay insisted on practicing their dance item in privacy, while we wondered if it was indeed a dance they were practicing or complex versions of Kamasutra!! The older people grumbled about the sound and how it affected their beauty sleep while our own rheumy knee joints complained about the disturbance to their not so dynamic existence. Tired at last, people slept where they found space, and fortunately the power supply did not fail often. In the mornings we trouped out bleary eyed, to the dining areas for the idlis, vadas and puttu served on banana leaves. Staid family members warbled or sang now and then, to ensure that their skills were also demonstrated while older listeners wah wahed. Days turned to night, limbs flailed and the mosquitoes got even more irritated, finding no parking space. The wedding preparations were truly on, like no other. My brother and sister in law were not spared either, for they had to waltz with the couple wearing formal clothes.

Our sons arrived from the US, one after a long span of 12 years while the other after a 5 year gap. I assume they were taken aback with all the hustle and bustle and activity, but the younger one joined the team quickly, though looking quite a bit embarrassed by his father’s antics on the dance floor. He was seen shaking his head in disgust often, at the spectacle his old man was creating…

Breakfasts were followed by succulent lunches, all vegetarian, followed by high tea and then dinner, with frequent infusions of herbal water to keep us all going and soon it was the day of the sangeeth event at which point we quizzed the parents and the couple, took them through their love story and peppered it all with some smart dances and performances. The couple who practiced in secret came up with a superb performance, and as it turned out, all other performances were pretty good. Yours’s truly performed well as a co-host and on the dance floor, though some were seen to remark that his white glasses (purloined from his son) were a bit too garish, but that the evening was a grand success… It is still being discussed, I presume and will be (or so I want to feel). Some others had stealthily retired to a private room to imbibe an invigorating beverage or two, while others not in the know were unhappy that Kerala had gone dry.

The next day a smaller group sped off  to Guruvayoor, and the stop at ICH there for the cutlets was not missed. This was when I met a fascinating young fella, Dina Karan, who took us along in his car. I cannot but express my admiration for this young lad, actually a gentle giant with an even bigger heart, an entrepreneur of two businesses as well as owning and running a school. It was fortunately not so crowded at Guruvayoor and my efforts at obtaining a copy of KVK’s book on the temple was unsuccessful. Other nearby relatives were met and early the next morning we witnessed the quick Talikettu wedding ceremony of the couple in front of the temple. People still find it amazing to see and hear that the event takes no more than 5 minutes. That done, Dina had to get us back to Palghat in quick time in his SUV, which he did, for he was a great driver, deftly handling the crowded Kerala roads. I will always remember that four or five hour trip, with Nikita in the front, a shawl draped over her to cover up all the jewelry, Dina driving with a fierce and focused countenance, Varsha, Kartika and Shoba in the middle row while Vineth and I were hunched over with the bags at the back. A jolly trip it was, with a lot of singing and merry making, and Kartika prodding us on with marvelous song suggestions. At Palghat, the formal event started after we got there, with many friends and relatives in attendance. A sumptuous lunch was served after and with that the day’s events were brought to a close. Dina returned to Tiripur, and we to Pallavur. An impromptu music session followed, where we all tried to sing, Vineth of course taking the lead as he is a wonderful singer and then we had a great time ribbing the couple about the first night....The next day showcased a reception to the villagers and as the house started to empty, with guests and relatives starting on their return trips, promises to stay in touch were sadly exchanged.

Nikitaa and Vineth
We moved on to Cochin before proceeding to Calicut, to drop off a son at the airport and visit a cousin in Cochin. Phew, Cochin City I can assure you is a right royal mess, with the metro work and the horrendous traffic jams. But then again, Calicut will soon follow suit. At Calicut, we had some other matters to tend to while our niece Devu and her team planned the Sangeeth and other related events for the second wedding. She did a yeoman job and ensured that it was memorable and efficient. We did have a little snafu (that word is actually an interesting military acronym – google it if you want to know) when an aunt fell ill and had to be hospitalized to recover from dehydration, what with the intense heat and humidity.

Calicut has changed a lot, the juice ‘mash’ now sports large industrial gloves on his hands to save his fingers from the citric acids while squeezing limes, a new Zamorin is in place, the roads are chockablock, many a high-rise is being built and people are just spending a lot of money. Added to all that, it was Ramadan time and many of the popular hotels had closed down for maintenance (but we had ensured that we did not miss the Bombay hotel biriyani before it closed). Paragon was open though and still maintained their old standard, but they had no more new stories of hotshots visiting them….

Newspapers were abuzz with the story of pirated DVD versions of Premam, a hit movie and various other events while the monsoon played truant. I can assure you my friends, it was too damn hot and humid, even for me!!

A new mall called Hi-lite had been opened and proved to be full of brand names, looking a lot like a US mall. The barbecue kitchen there was a revelation, and the food fantastic, to say the least, though one must be quite hungry to consume all the stuff they have on offer. The bypass was becoming the in-place, with all kinds of new shops. I wonder how Calicut will look after some time.

Calicut was many things to many travelers, delightful, bustling, quiet, war torn, rainy, sleepy and so on and widely written about, eons ago. Today it has lost all its character, and if you compare it with David Lear’s description a hundred plus years ago (1874 to be exact) terming Calicut the summer of Eden, you just wonder.

Lear had said - I mooned about those beautiful lanes and roads, the exquisite vegetation of which beats all chance of description. The plentitude of palmery here is overwhelming! Those deep grey-green misty hollows full of endless vistas and series of palm leaves and stems! It is all but impossible to give any idea of these beautiful Malabar lanes, since their chief beauty consists of what cannot be readily imitated; to wit, endless detail of infinitely varied vegetation, and constantly changing variety of moving figure panoramic effect. The colour, too, of these scenes; the deep and vivid green, the red soil roads, and the brilliant white and scarlet dresses of the people, make all Malabar drawing a painful riddle. I found it too difficult to draw standing up in the middle of hot road, with crowds of people around. These Malabar folk stick like burrs or flies; you can't get rid of them, and on the 'one fool makes many' principle, you find yourself in a multitude, what can one do against the eternal rain? At this moment it is raining as if it had never rained before-cats and dogs.

About the beach - How pretty and orderly all this part of Calicut looks!

That is one part of Calicut which has changed so much, the beach has been beautified, sea view apartments built, the filth has been mostly removed and by evening, everybody is there to look at the Arabian Sea and be part of the evening multitude…..and have a good time.

The second wedding went off well, with the Sangeeth also a resounding success. Remarkable an event in many ways (Remember what I had to say about religious amity in Calicut?), my wife’s nephew Sid married Lisa Mary and the function was solemnized in a reception hall owned by a Muslim friend! As usual the cousins were all there, replete with a lot of merry making and consumption of great food, though a bit somber with the aunt’s illness, from which she subsequently recovered fully…

The theme color for the ladies  of the family was yellow and orange and it is said that many of the hapless lady guests  trooped into every cloth shop in Calicut trying the find a yellow saree or dress in time, so much so that the event and people were well known in most shops. As girls and women put on mehndi on their hands, special events marked evenings, like a performance welcoming the bride, with the folk singer extoling the virtues of the bridegroom, impromptu singing, catered food and what not. Everybody wanted to make sure that they were in line to bless the couple, as is a must in Kerala weddings.

The demure bride seemed a bit overwhelmed with all the new ceremonies, but we hastened to put her at ease with idle chatter as Sid was busy sorting out matters before their quick return to Bombay, where they both worked. A visit to the registrar (I could not but help recall that one of the first registrars who sat in that very office was my own grandfather!) to witness their legal marriage was an interesting aside. The special marriage act rules required the couple to fulfill the condition that they were neither idiots nor lunatics (neither party should be an idiot or a lunatic at the time of registration)! Hmm, no wonder they call the English queer, only they could have instated such a rule!!
Sid and Lisa with parents
And finally it was time to return. Sartaj again was the taxi driver who took us back to Cochin airport. We did startle him again when we asked him to stop at a road side Indian coffee house to have a last meal of cutlets and ghee roast. I presume he was wondering on his lonely drive back, about those funny Americans who wanted to eat only at such lowly places and of course, I am also sure he has different impressions about us compared to many of those Malayali foreign returnees who spoke with newly acquired accents and threw money around…
At the registrar's office
But like every other trip, we met so many new and interesting people who would remain in our minds and hearts, like the driver Sartaj, the impressionable Dina, new friends like Varsha, Reshma and Kartika, and so many more….

But I cannot end without introducing an even more interesting character, named Chotu, for he was the professional photographer during the event at Calicut. It is said that before he became an accomplished event photographer, he used to accompany his friend Jayan, an AIR artist who clambered coconut trees (part-time – you have no idea how strenuous that is) to fell coconuts. Now Chotu never climbed coconut trees, but he was an oddity because he was not a Malayali and spoke only Hindi. He had landed up in Calicut, after running away from his faraway Uttaranchal home as a teenager (don’t ask me why, I forgot to ask Chotu). Why he chose Kerala was also not clarified as my own meeting with him was shorter than I liked. Anyway as the story goes, he wandered around with Jayan who took him under his wings and when Jayan started to work with Doordarshan at Trivandrum, Chotu accompanied. One day he found time to visit a circus. There he met a Russian who as it turns out, curiously tried to sell him a Zenit 35mm SLR camera. Chotu had no need for a camera, and neither of them could converse for they had no common language. Talking with signs and eyes, the Russian in the circus made it clear he wanted to be rid of the camera and wanted some money in return. He wanted Rs 5,000, and without a plan in mind, Chotu replied that all he could raise was RS 1,000. The Russian agreed finally and Chotu (means ‘small guy’) ended up with a Zenit camera and a nice leather case. Not knowing what to do with it, he decided to go to the beach and take pictures of beach scenery, because somebody told him that is what you did with a camera. He shot away, taking in the palm trees, the beach and finally some bikini clad foreigners.

When he had the reel developed, he was not surprised to see that most of the pictures were duds. Of the 37 he shot (now those who used cameras in the 70’s through 90’s will know that you can get only 36 shots legally, and the 37th is usually an iffie) only the last four of the bikini clad females came out right. Chotu was mystified, why did the last four work out right? Were the girls blessed or was it because of their complexion? You never know with these foreigners, he thought. He went back to the studio to find out and find out he did, that the shutter stop setting was perhaps just right for the low light since the last four shots had been taken with the setting sun behind the scantily clad lassies. So the next week, he spent another hard earned Rs 120 on a new roll of film and with a book in hand carefully set the exposures and recorded them against time. Soon he had mastered the Zenit…

And that was how he became a photographer, and having decided to settle at Calicut, mastered Malayalam though speaking it with a slight accent. He is now a popular young fella in Calicut (I forgot his full name and in any case nobody other than he, uses it anyway) and covers many a wedding event. He, I believe, is now on the lookout for a life partner.

These day things have changed so much in Kerala, where once North Indians were hardly seen. Today there are so many migrants from Bihar, Assam, Bengal and all those NE parts. Malayalis are employing them for all kinds of work and many a Malayali now proudly claims to be fluent in Hindi, thanks to these job seekers.

Ah! Well! I have been rambling on and on as so many miles were traversed by the large A380. The pilot has announced that it will soon be time to land in JFK. They want us to put on our seal belts, upright our seats and raise the tray tables.

The seat belt clicks again, severing my memories of that glorious month in India.

Nikita – You asked me why I thanked you after the wedding, now you have a complete answer, no?

And with that, let me sign off…..

Here I am, back home……..