Mohiniyattam is one of the eight Indian classical dance forms recognized by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The term Mohiniyattam comes from the words “Mohini” (meaning a woman who enchants onlookers) and “attam” (meaning graceful and sensuous body movements). The word “Mohiniyattam” literally means “dance of the enchantress”.

  1. 1. History
  2. 2. The origin of the dance – the story of Mohini
  3. 3. Technique
  4. 4. Repertoire
  5. 5. Costume and make-up
  6. 6. Music
  7. 7. Literature

1. History

Mohiniyattam seems to be a dance of the Devadasis; the temple dancers in Kerala. Sculptures and inscriptions from the temples dating back to the ninth century support this. There are also references to the form in 12th century literature . In Kerala, Devadasis were known under the name “Teviticci” which means “Servant at the feet of god” (Tevar = God, Ati = feet, Acci = woman). For years they enjoyed prestige and importance. However, Mohiniyattam only appears to be around 500 years old. Alternative opinions are that Mohiniyattam was not a dance of the Devadasis, and has existed only since “the Golden Era of Art and Literature” in the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest recorded evidence, from the 18th century, is a report detailing the salaries of the dancers.

Mohiniyattam attained significance under the reign of the ruler Swati Tirunal (1813-1847) of Travancore (today Trivandrum). His royal family, whose members themselves were all gifted artists, used and promoted all forms of art, especially music and dance. Swati Tirunal encouraged artists all over India to come to his court. So he could win Vadivelu of the Tanjore brothers for his court, who was a great Bharatanatyam teacher. This brought significant improvements and renovations for Mohiniyattam. Swati Tirunal created attractive music for Mohiniyattam; writing 20 Varnams, 50 Padams and 5 Tillanas. He also won Irayimman Dampier, a great musician, for his court. In this period Mohiniyattam underwent a significant improvement and refinement, without affecting the fundamental aspects of the art form.

On the farms, in houses of wealthy merchants and courtiers, as well as at public festivals, this popular dance form was greatly esteemed. Unfortunately, the followers of Tirunal promoted only Kathakali; a male dance style, and Mohiniyattam fell into oblivion. The prohibition for public dancing by the British colonial government contributed to the gradual disappearance of the classical Indian dances. Dancers were forced to bargain and to include obscene dance pieces in their performances to please the humble people. Thus dance pieces as Polikali, Esalen, Mukkuthi and Candanam were introduced to the repertoire of Mohiniyattam. Only through the effort and merit of the Keralan poet Vallathol Narayanan, was the traditional form of Mohiniyattam preserved. He founded the Institute Kerala Kalamandalam in the 1930’s, with a view to reviving the local arts, such as Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Thullal. The curriculum of Mohiniyattam included only the classical features and dance pieces, and rejected the pieces of minor value.

We give great thanks to Vallathol Narayanan, and for the exceptionally merit of great teachers and researchers who developed Mohiniyattam making it an independent and respectful art form.

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2. The origin of the dance - the story of Mohini

A significant aspect of Mohiniyattam (besides the adoration and love for God) is the creature “Mohini”. She is the divine temptress in Hindu mythology, embodiment of feminine beauty and allure. Many legends exist regarding Mohini. One of the most famous which introduced Mohini into the Hindu mythos, is the narrative epic the Mahabharata:

When the world was created, the Gods and the demons (Asuras) were equal. Brahma, the creator of the universe, told the Gods (Devas) to form “Amrita”, the elixir of immortality,by the foaming of the primeval oceans. The Devas were too weak to churn the ocean by themselves and needed the help of the demons (Asuras). They offered them an equal share of the Amrita, which would have made them even stronger than the gods.

To churn the ocean they used the Serpent King, Vasuki, for their churning-string. For a churning pole they used Mount Mandara placed on the back of a Great Tortoise – the Kurma Avatar of Vishnu. After many difficulties and adventurous efforts the elixir of immortality was taken from the primeval ocean in a vessel. A fight between the Devas and Asuras started. Suddenly Vishnu appeared as an “enchanting damsel – Mohini”, adorned with jewellery and delicate sounding feet bells. The Demons got carried away by her dance and forgot the fight for the “Amrita”. After her performance Mohini charmed the demons, took the pot of nectar from them and gave it to the Devas.

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3. Technique

The Appearance of Mohiniyattam, which is a Lasya style, is characterized by feminine, graceful and characterized body movements, marked by the very fine sway of the torso from side to side, the circular swinging motion of the body creating an 8 (Eight) and far sweeping steps.It has often been said that the movements of the limbs and body of the danseuse of Mohiniyattam should be gentle and graceful like the waves in a calm sea or the swaying of the paddy plants in the field.
The basic and main position is “Aramandalam”. In the western dance language it is known as the second Position in Demi Plies. In Mohiniyattam there exists approximately 40 – 60 basic motion sequences (depending on the style and school), called Adavus which have to be mastered before learning a dance piece.
Mohiniyattam also partially follows the book of Natyashastra (major book of drama, dance and music) as well the Hastha Lakshandeepika; a text book for Mudras, or hand gestures. According to the Natyashastra, the art of classical dance (including Mohiniyattam) is divided into three broad divisions: nritta, nritya and natya.
Nritta means the pure movement of the body. It is used for creating beauty by setting different shapes and lines of the body in space and time without conveying any mood (bhava), meaning or story. The adavus are a part of Nritta.
Nritya can be described as interpretive dance, where the lyrics of the song are conveyed using hand gestures (hasta mudras) and expressions (abhinaya).  The dancer’s internal emotions (bhava) create the sentiment (rasa) of the piece, which should also be felt by the audience.
Natya is the dramatic element of classical Indian dance.  The dancers take on character roles and perform a dramatic story through music and dance. It includes drama through the use of spoken word, apart from Nritta and Nritya.
Besides the Natya Shastra, the book Balaramabharatam is indispensable to the learning and teaching of Mohiniyattam.
The author, scholar and king Karthika Thirunal Bala Rama Varma (‘Dharma Raja’ or “the king of righteousness), who possessed a great talent in the field of literature, music and dance, promoted the arts and literature in the 18th Century. His book, which in fact is an elaboration on the 6th to the 10th chapter of the Natyashastra, is an authentic treatise on Mohiniyattam. In addition to the mudras, the Angas (major limbs like thorax, hips, feet, hands and head), Upangas (minor limbs such as eyes, eyebrows, nose, lips and chin, mouth) and Pratyangas (neck, wrist, knee, thigh, etc.) are described and defined. This book- with texts and practical details- completes the study of Mohiniyattam.
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4. Repertoire

The repertoire of Mohiniyattam has similarities with the Classical Indian dance style Bharatanatyam. For several decades, there were many efforts to develop a new independent repertoire for Mohiniyattam to give it an individuality and a strong position among the other Classical Indian dances.

The repertoire of Mohiniyattam usually includes five different dance pieces. A performance begins with a Cholkettu, consisting of stylised rhythmic syllables in tune with raga and the danseuse with pure dance patterns appropriate to it. It is followed by a Jatisvaram, which consists mainly of pure body movement and excludes theatrical elements. In the Varnam the dancer changes between pure dance (Nritta) and an explanatory dance with facial expressions and gestures (Nritya). Following this, Padam focuses on the theatrical aspect, and the telling of stories with the help of mudras. At the end the dancers show their full ability with a Tillana. It is danced (in contrast to the Padam) to fast music and is characterized by complex foot and body work as well as Nritta.

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5. Costume and make-up

The traditional costume of the dancer was influenced by the clothing of the natives of Kerala, who wore white (mainly due to the hot climate). The dancer is attired in a beautiful white and gold-bordered Kasavu saree of Kerala, and is adorned with traditional gold jewellery such as bangles and chains, forehead jewellery and earrings. The special feature of the Mohiniyattam is a hair bun on the left side of the head, which is tied with jasmine blossoms. The face, eyes and eyebrows have a heavy makeup in order to emphasize the facial expressions.
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6. Music

Mohiniyattam is accompanied by classical Carnatic music. The music is mainly extremely lyrical, sensuous and concentrating more on bhava than trying to articulate the swara patterns. This mode of singing is called Sopanam. The lyrics for the songs are often written in Manipravalam, which is a combination of Malayalam and Sanskrit.The songs are usually accompanied with instruments such as the Edakka, Veena, Indian Violin and Mridagam.

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7. Literature

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