Friday, October 3, 2014


Having recently entered into a course of self-study, trying to understand the vast and varied culture of my great nation, I enrolled myself for a short introductory course by acclaimed Mohiniattam doyenne from Chennai, Vidushi  Gopika Varma, from the royal family of Travancore.

Mohiniattam literally means the ‘Dance of the Enchantress’ but like all other classical dances of India, its basic overtones are of devotion and worship to God. It was a happy experience, learning the various mudras of this classical dance form. Each mudra depicted an inner feeling, an outer situation, and a moment in time. Overall it is a complete language in dance form, a communication that entertains, informs and educates at the same time.  I was impressed by the effort but the same time baffled as to how this language of dance would survive? How it would overcome this challenges which lay before it ? The answers are, through adaptation and evolution,  and by adding 'over and above the traditions' communication factor to its. If you want it to be enjoyed and understood nationally or internationally you have to give it a more national and international spirit as we retain its traditional soul.

While classical dance forms of South India such as Bharatnatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali etc. have loyal followers in the South, in North India, they are much less known and even lesser understood. Most people would not even be able to tell the difference between Bharatnatyam and Mohiniattam. While in South India, huge classical dance fests are organized and each performance is closely and ruthlessly reviewed in the next day’s newspapers, in the North, the next day’s coverage is usually restricted to a photograph of the performer along with a caption “A Mohiniattam performer at … theatre”. Sometimes even the newspapers get it wrong and call it Bharatnatyam by mistake. These classical dance forms are important building blocks of our culture. In order to ensure long term sustainability for them, they must go national and global.

To do this, firstly, the themes must become more contemporary. Currently almost all performances are done around traditional mythological themes. Only an audience well versed with the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata can actually follow and enjoy the performance. Once in a while a performance is done on Gandhi or Tagore and even these are few and far between. New themes like global climate change, War, terrorism, trans-national migration can be challenging and rewarding themes of performance for current exponents. It would help them connect to the wider national and global audience.

Secondly, There needs to be more of dialogue and discourse before and during a performance if the audience is not very well versed with the dance form. This should be done even at the cost of taking up precious performance time to help the audience, especially the young audience understand and grasp the nuances. We cannot forget that we live in the land of Demographic Dividend. This young nation and its young people are accustomed to having ideas sold to them and the elder generation must put all efforts to help them understand, appreciate and connect deeply to classical music and dance.

 Thirdly, the style, expression etc. must evolve to meet the demands of audio-visual media. Classical dances such as Mohiniattam were originally designed to be performed on stage in a Durbar or Temple. The only lighting was huge lamp holders on two sides of the stage. Therefore, the expressions make up and movements were loud, highly exaggerated and larger than life. In that low light, all this looked dramatic, beautiful and acceptable. In today’s scenario where dissemination of performing art through audio-visual media is a necessity, the expressions and make up must change and soften to be acceptable to the audience. Otherwise the exaggeration may end up looking garish.

The example of Bharatnatyam may help us understand this. In olden times when Bharatnatyam was performed on a smaller circular setting with audience sitting quite close on all three directions of the dancer, she would have to do the same action thrice in all three directions to help everyone see it clearly. Thus performances went on for hours and hours. This even continues when the stage setting changes to British theatre style where the distance between the performer and audience all sides was such, that any action in the front could be seen by audience to the left and right. It was only later that this practice was dropped and thus performance times were cut down to one third.

Mohiniattam exponents have already been making endeavours in the direction of evolution. The dress and hairstyle of tilted hair bun with jasmine flowers which distinguishes it from Bharatnatam performers is a very recent development. In costume colour too, where once only white was allowed and no other colour for costume tolerated, today exponents are wearing colours for better effect. This is being done by forward thinking exponents across the classical performance board. Legendary Bharatnatyam exponent, Padamshree awardee Shreemati Leela Samson, at a recent performance had her entire troupe wearing black costumes with red or white trims. Use of such dark coulors is unusual for Bharatnatyam but has a very dramatic and enchanting effect on stage.

Evolution is the essence of survival. Our classical performing arts must evolve not just in costumes and accessories, but also in terms of theme, language, music and presentation to ensure that their beauty and richness is not restricted to certain pockets but spreads across the globe to a wider audience of lovers of art and culture. 

- Divya Gurnay

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