Mohiniyattom is one of Kerala’s most popular dance forms and is believed to have originated between 500 BCE to 500 CE. It gained popularity along with Kathakali as a temple art during the 18th century.
Mohiniyattom literally means the dance of the enchantress. Vishnu came as Mohini to enchant and distract the demons who were extracting the elixir along with the Gods. Mohini, Vishnu’s female avatar, the beautiful enchantress, is dancing her heart out depicting her love and lust in Mohiniyattom. It also depicts stories of motherhood, friendship, and sisterhood. Lasya or romance remains the main theme. The dancer dances slowly and elegantly to the tunes enacting emotions conveying the story beautifully.
Photo by anniedalbera
Facial expressions and hand mudras are more important than steps in Mohiniyattom. The dancers use graceful and slow movements to depict the love and romance through the dance. Like Bharathanatyam, the dance passes through 7 stages – Bhagavathy stuthi or Cholkettu, Jathiswaram or steps, Varnam where the descriptive acting comes, Padam the rhythm steps in, thillana which is a pure dance form, slokam, and saptham. Saptham contains a prayer or salutes to Lord Siva.
Mohiniyattom is considered as a Dasiyattam or the dance of the Devadasis to seduce the affluent male rulers who come to them for entertainment. This was quite popular during the Chera period and until the British took over. Until the 18th century, the dance form suffered as the British and the Nawabs could neither understand the dance nor had the artistic inclination to enjoy it. Later, during the late 18th and 19th centuries, Mohiniyttom regained its stature as a popular temple art which was performed during the festivals and festivities like Kathakali.
The dancer, dressed in typical Kerala Kasavu mundu, pleated beautifully like a fan, offers a treat to the eyes of the spectators. The attire becomes complete with traditional jewelry such as Kasumala or the coin chain, Ilakkathali which is a choker with minute leaf-shaped hangings and Palakka mala which typically contains a large emerald stone. The hair is put up to the side and decorated with jasmine flowers.
Photo by Arian Zwegers
The most prominent feature on the dancer’s face would be the eyes. Since facial expressions are the most important element of Mohiniyattom, the eyes are carefully highlighted by makeup. The round large Bindi, typically in maroon color on the dancer’s forehead is another most important aspect. The hands are adorned with Mehndi put in simple traditional style in circles.
The music accompanying Mohiniyattom is Manipravala which is a mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam. Stories of romance are depicted along with the background of Mridangam and Idaykka. Veena and Kuzhithalam are also used in the background.
Mohiniyattom is now a popular temple-art like Kathakali. Renowned male and female dancers perform this dance as a dedication to love during temple festivals. It is also performed as an entertainer in cultural events. For the tourists who visit Kerala on houseboats and at the resorts, live Mohiniyattom performance is included on board the boat or at the resort as a part of their evening entertainment.
Some of the popular Mohiniyattom dancers are Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, Kalyani Kuttiamma, Sunanda Nair, Gopika Varma and Pallavi Krishnan. Though predominantly a female dance form, male dancers also perform Mohiniyattom. Mukundraja, Krishna Panicker and RLV Ramakrishnan are some of the renowned male dancers who perform Mohiniyattom with as much grace as the women.
As with any artform, Mohiniyattom is also undergoing many revolutionary changes by stepping away from the typical mythical stories of the Hindus to adopting modern stories and stories from the Bible. Jolly Mathew, the first male dancer to receive a fellowship in Mohiniyattom, has adapted Bible stories and the renowned poet Changampuzha’s poem Vazhakkula into this beautiful dance form.
Featured Photo by Dance Photographer – Brendan Lally