Mohiniyattam has made great strides

The two most popular artistes associated with Mohiniyattam today are mother-daughter duo Bharati Shivaji and Vijayalakshmi. So it is almost natural, and perhaps forgivable, to think they hail from the land of Mohiniyattam – Kerala. It comes as a surprise though, to hear from Vijayalakshmi herself that they are not Malayalis, but Tamilians!

“In fact, my mother had learnt Bharatanatyam and Odissi and had been practicing the same for almost 20 years. She wasn’t even familiar with Mohiniyattam then. The transition came about around 35 years back when she saw the famous dancer Indrani Rahman performing Mohiniyattam in Delhi. She was completely besotted with the grace in this dance form and conveyed her new found love to (legendary art connoisseur) Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Kamaladevi then advised her to take up Mohiniyattam,” informs Vijayalakshmi.

Bharati has often commented in interviews that she has seen Mohiniyattam grow with her daughter, and indeed Vijayalakshmi has travelled this length with her mother in rediscovering Mohiniyattam. She says, “One may think that Kerala and Tamil Nadu being neighbouring states would have similar cultures. But the truth is that they are poles apart. Our traditions, language – everything is different. So when Amma, and later I, took up Mohiniyattam and travelled to Kerala, we were as good as foreigners there. Though sometimes, being foreigners, you appreciate things better.”

Vijayalakshmi has gladly submitted her life to a dance form from a hitherto unknown land but it does come with a tinge of sadness. “Years back, I and another student of Amma went to Kerala to perform before a panel of artiste-judges to be selected for a national scholarship. They saw us through and praised us effusively, but refused to grant us the scholarship. The reason they stated was that they wanted only Malayali Mohiniyattam dancers. I and my friend were, of course, Tamilian and Punjabi respectively.”

“It did feel bad. I have hardly ever seen myself as strictly a Tamilian. My mother was raised in Jamshedpur and has had a considerable influence of Bengali culture in her life. She sings Rabindra sangeet like no one can. As for me, I have been raised in Nizamuddin and Chandni Chowk and Delhi is home for me. So parochialism does bother me. If we stop thinking this way, art can be taken much further. And why just art? Every aspect of life can be better
developed.”

So 35 years after her mother picked up Mohiniyattam and both of them brought the dance out of oblivion and certain extinction, how does she think is Mohiniyattam placed now? “This dance form has made great strides. We are seeing research being done on it and modern compositions arising from this ancient art. It is well recognised not just in India but across the world today. Amma and I feel proud that Mohiniyattam is set to assume its position in the international constellation of dance forms soon.”

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