'Dance is like my mother tongue'

'Dance is like my mother tongue'

While most Mohiniyattam dancers wear their hair in a tight bun on one side of the head, dancer Smitha Rajan stands out with her hairstyle in the regular way — with a long, single plait.

Ask her the reason and she says, “That is one lesson learnt from my grandmother and Mohiniyattam Guru Kalamandalam Kallyanikutty Amma. This change of hairstyle (tight bun on one side) came into practice in Kerala Kalamandalam in the 1960’s. Before that, they too were following the hairstyle I follow now. My grandmother protested against this new style at Kalamandalam because she had researched on Mohiniyattam traditions
in detail.”

Born into a family of legendary classical dancers and musicians, it didn’t take too long for her family, especially her aunt, to realise Rajan’s potential.

“My learning was in the Gurukul system of education. In the beginning, I didn’t know I was learning Mohiniyattam and for me, it was just dance. It was my aunt who saw the potential in me, as early as at the age of five. She asked me to perform before everyone and I performed the first item of Mohiniyattam in full named ‘Cholkettu’. Then onwards,
I took it really seriously,” she recollects. 

As a third generation dancer, she got the rare opportunity to extensively travel along with her grandmother and assist her during the lecture demonstrations and master classes conducted for Mohiniyattam. Her facial expressions and gestures were fine-tuned by the renowned Kathakali artiste Krishnan Nair which gave her the ability to transform and enact multiple characters in ‘Ekaharya’ (single costume) dance style as a solo performer.

“I learnt from everyone on those travels. It wasn’t definitely an easy path, especially because I am the granddaughter of such legendary dancers. I had to be extremely careful. Throughout my life, I have been with dance. In fact, dance is like
my mother tongue. I see it everywhere.” 

Well versed in Kathakali, Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi as well, her primary focus has been Mohiniyattam since the last four decades and “commitment to the rich heritage handed over to her by her legendary grandmother”.

“Just like any other dance form, Mohinyattam is too a medium of expression. It has the ability to express any feeling, any story and any theme,” Rajan tells Metrolife on the sidelines of ‘Mohininrityati Festival’, a festival of Indian classical dance organised by Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi at Rabindra Bhavan in the city.

Performing on classical pieces including a combination of facial expressions (mukhija abhinaya), dance movements (nritta), and dance drama (natya), Rajan stresses on the wide scope of the dance form.

“Within the time limitation that we have of one to one and a half hours, I was trying to portray the best of Mohiniyattam. So, I incorporated a little bit of ‘nritta’ in all my items and was trying to portray the ability of mohiniyattam to convey a story. Even though, it is secondary to ‘abhinaya’ in Kathakali, Mohiniyattam has a larger scope to express feelings and tell stories,” points out Rajan, who hails from Kochi and is currently based out of Saint Louis, USA. 

Hinting at the challenges that the dance form faces, the 45-year-old laments at the lack of accurate knowledge as the primary reason.

She says, “As a dance form, Mohiniyattam has so many misrepresentations. It is not the dance form of Mohini, the mystical feminine avatar of Vishnu. Sadly, the true essence of this dance has not been carried forward by the current few practitioners.”

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