How Mohiniyattam Asks Tough And Important Questions

It is very necessary to interpret our classical dance forms by creating innovative work steeped in tradition. At the same time, it is important to ask “why” during practice, says Guru Vijayalakshmi.

The experience of introducing Mohiniyattam to audiences in the United States of America has been rewarding and encouraging. Such is the power of Mohiniyattam’s natural beauty and grace, that their intrigue and wonderment quickly gives way to mesmerisation. I know, that when I speak about the process or journey being more important than the destination, in Mohiniyattam, audiences in the U.S.A completely understand it. Students are beginning to realise what it takes to do this dance form, and that, the seamless lyrical movements belie a core strength within. One of my students summed it up profoundly. She asked, “How difficult is it to be natural?”

Tough Task

Interaction with people in the dance fraternity, audiences, presenters and academic community in the United States of America, makes me realise how daunting and necessary the task is of introducing them to Mohiniyattam. People familiar with Indian classical dance in the U.S.A are largely conversant with Bharatanatyam, a dance form sustained through the innumerable Bharatanatyam schools, which have seen exponential growth, and universities, where the faculties of dance occasionally boast of dancers trained in Bharatanatyam the best slimming pills.

Another challenge one often runs into, is lack of adequate funding for presenting Indian dance forms at the universities, given how West-centric the departments are.


I often like to pose tough questions to the Indian audience in America. “Why do you dance? What does Indian classical dance mean to you?”. I ask. To be prodded to think about “why” we do what we do is disconcerting to many people — perhaps — a result of the mechanistic approach of the West, that we have all been inevitably influenced by.

“Why?” is a fundamental question every dancer ought to ask himself or herself. Especially, given that our Indian dance traditions are not just limited to physical movement, but reflect a deep mind-body experience, rooted in the spiritual. “Why?” The question is meant for the dancers, as well as the Indian Diaspora.

There is an obvious reason — connecting with one’s culture. Is securing an arangetram under one’s belt, or getting extra credits for college admissions an objective? “Why?” is a fundamental question.

Remain Connected With The Arts And Tradition

I urge the Indian Diaspora to be open to all forms of dance, so that, children have adequate exposure to the various Indian forms, and are then able to focus on the one dance form they truly enjoy, and feel most natural with. Parents who have grown up in India, lament the fact that their children are part of a society which believes that Indian culture is defined by pop culture. They feel grateful and privileged to have experienced the classical and folk arts during their formative years, while their children have little access to the arts, besides, the misleading notions of our culture and values. However, one has to concede, that there is a concerted effort from people living outside India in remaining connected with their traditions, much more than those living in India, where the society is blindly emulating the West and is embarrassed to even own the Indian ethos.

Create Something Universal

Innovative work resonates with universal questions. I presented “Rain” in the U.S.A, last year. It is one of my recent works inspired by Sudeep Sen’s poetry, drawing upon diverse musical genres like Kerala’s Sopana Sangeetam, carnatic music, Dhrupad (introduced for the very first time in Mohiniyattam) and Rabindra Sangeet, besides elements of world music. The experience of singing a Rabindra Sangeet composition that I grew up hearing my mother-Guru Bharti Shivaji sing, arranged in the most poignant manner by Mac Quayle, continues to be unforgettable. Los Angeles in particular, being home to many distinguished artistes from across the globe, offers great opportunities for artistes like me to collaborate and have a mutually enriching experience.

To the non-Indian audience, the aspect of immense fascination and value is the emotive dimension of our dance forms – particularly a form like Mohiniyattam. Given that it is from Kerala, an unparalleled repository of complex and highly theatrical dance drama traditions, Mohiniyattam is intensely rich in abhinaya or emotive expression.  In fact, it is this aspect about Mohiniyattam that has always struck foreign audiences, for they have not experienced dance in all its dimensions — the physical, emotional and spiritual. This aspect makes our classical forms an intense experience for the spectator. It is very necessary to interpret our classical dance traditions by creating innovative work; work steeped in tradition that resonates with contemporary universal relevance.

— Guru Vijayalakshmi is a well-known exponent of Mohiniyattam.