Mohiniyattam, also spelled Mohiniattam (Malayalam: മോഹിനിയാട്ടം), is one of two classical dances of India that developed and remain popular in the state of Kerala. The other classical dance form from Kerala is Kathakali. Mohiniyattam dance gets its name from the word Mohini – a mythical enchantress avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, who helps the good prevail over evil by deploying her feminine powers.
Mohiniyattam’s roots, like all classical Indian dances, are in the Natya Shastra – the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text on performance arts. However, it follows the Lasya style described in Natya Shastra, that is a dance which is delicate, eros-filled and feminine. It is traditionally a solo dance performed by women after extensive training. The repertoire of Mohiniyattam includes music in the Carnatic style, singing and acting a play through the dance, where the recitation may be either by a separate vocalist or the dancer herself. The song is typically in Malayalam-Sanskrit hybrid called Manipravala.
The earliest mention of the word is found in the 16th-century legal text Vyavaharamala, but the likely roots of the dance are older. The dance was systematized in the 18th century, was ridiculed as a Devadasi prostitution system during the colonial British Raj, banned by a series of laws from 1931 through 1938, a ban that was protested and partially repealed in 1940. The socio-political conflict ultimately led to renewed interest, revival and reconstruction of Mohiniyattam by the people of Kerala, particularly the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon.
Mohiniyattam, also referred to as Mohini-attam, is derived from “Mohini” – a famous female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu in Indian mythology.
Mohini refers to a “divine enchantress, supreme seductress”. She appears in Hindu mythologies during a battle between Devas (good) and Asuras (evil), after the evil had won control of Amrita (nectar of immortality). Appearing in her youthful bloom, dressed rapturously she uses her charms to seduce the Asuras, who seeking her favors, give her the Amrita to distribute among the evil forces. Mohini after gaining the Amrita gives it to the good instead, depriving the evil from gaining immortality.
The details of the Mohini story varies by the Purana and region, but she is consistently an enchantress avatar of the supreme in Vaishnavism. Aattam is a Malayalam language word, and means rhythmic motion or dance. Mohiniyattam thus connotes “a dance of an enchantress, a beautiful woman”.
Mohiniyattam is a classical Indian dance, which by definition traces its repertoire to the foundational text Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra text is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni. Its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The text describes the basic elements and the structure of two types of dance: the vigorous, high energy Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva) and the gentle, calmingly graceful Lāsyā dance (Parvati, Shiva’s lover). Mohiniyāttam follows the structure and aims of the Lāsyā dance in Natya Shastra.
According to Reginald Massey, Mohiniyattam’s history is unclear. Kerala, the region where this dance genre developed and is popular, has a long tradition of lasya style dances whose basics and structure may be at the root. The earliest evidence of Mohiniyattam, or a Mohiniyattam-like dance tradition is found in temple sculpture of Kerala. The 11th century Vishnu temple at Trikodithanam, and the Kidangur Subramanya temple, have several sculptures of female dancers in Mohiniyattam pose. The textual evidence from 12th century onwards suggest that Malayalam poets and playwrights included Lāsyā themes. The 16th century Vyavaharamala by Nambootiri contains the first known mention of the term Mohiniyattam, in the context of a payment to be made to a Mohiniyattam dancer. Another text, Gosha Yatra, from the 17th century too mentions the term. The 18th century Balarama Bharatam, a major secondary work on Natya Shastra composed in Kerala, mentions many dance styles including Mohini Natana.
In the 18th and 19th century, Mohiniyattam grew as dance arts received patronage of competing princely states. In particular, the early 19th century sponsorship and building of a joint Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam team of artists by the Hindu king, poet and music composer Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma contributed to the growth and systematization of modern Mohiniyattam.
The dancer wears relatively simple jewelry and no masks, in contrast to the other major classical dance of Kerala called Kathakali. Her jewelry typically includes items on fingers, wrists, neck and ears (which may have bells). The face makeup is natural, but lips are brilliant red, she has the Hindu tikka on her forehead and her eyes are lined to help prominently highlight the eye movements during the dance. Her ankles are adorned with leather straps with bells (ghungroo), feet and fingers colored red with natural dyes. Her hairdo is gathered and tied into a smooth tight round chignon on one side of her head (typically left) and the bun then ringed with fragrant flowers (typically jasmine mallika).
Music and Instruments
The vocal music of Mohiniyattam involves various rhythms. There are numerous compositions for a Mohiniyattam repertoire, most of whose lyrics are in Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam.
The musical instruments usually used in Mohiniyattam are Mridangam or Madhalam (barrel drum), Idakka (hour glass drum), flute, Veena, and Kuzhitalam (cymbals). The ragas (melody) are rendered in the sopana (steps) style, which is a slow melodic style with roots in the Natya Shastra.