Grace Is Powerful, Not A Sign Of Subservience


Exploration of the broader dimensions of feminine strength and intellect, through Kalaripayattu and Mohiniyattam, has allowed the pleasant task of destroying gender stereotypes.

— By Guru Vijayalakshmi 

A stereotypical perception of femininity or a traditional feminine dance form, both are limiting and detrimental. This aspect has spurred me towards the pleasant task of destroying the steadiest stereotypes associated with Mohiniyattam. In my earliest innovative work, Unniarcha, nearly two decades ago, I drew inspiration from a real-life woman, Unniarcha, who lived some 350 years ago, in the North Malabar region of Kerala.

What do we understand by strength and how do we define it? Do aggression, violence and greed signify strength? Does grace truly epitomise power and strength? Is grace, conversely, a sign of weakness and subservience? There are some misplaced and misleading concepts we hold to be true in our society.

Believed to be well-versed in Kalaripayattu, the martial art of Kerala, to me, Unniarcha epitomised a traditional woman with a mind of her own. This production enabled me to not only delve deeper into the concept of femininity but, more necessarily, expand it. The exploration of her fearless spirit, in pursuit of spiritual aspirations, both in terms of mind and body, could only be translated through the intense vocabulary of Kalaripayattu.

Here, it is significant to note the intrinsic connect that Mohiniyattam and Kalaripayattu share. I often emphasise, that Kalaripayattu is, in fact, the parent art form to Mohiniyattam in terms of technique. The inner strength that Unniarcha possessed was aptly conveyed through the “internal” nature of the Kalaripayattu movements. Looking back, one cannot but wonder, how in a culture such as ours, women were, and still are, to some extent, credited with neither intellectual or spiritual acumen – based on the assumption that they are preoccupied with the nitty gritties of life, namely, home and child rearing. Not surprising, that the nayika of some of the popularly-danced padams in Mohiniyattam, in the yester years, was often depicted as longing and languishing for her “lord”.

My Unniarcha production was revolutionary in its delineation of veera rasa. The dancers and the audience embarked on a journey of experiencing Mohiniyattam in its broader dimension — where grace and power co-existed.


The author as Vidyottama in Mohan Maharishi’s ‘Vidyottama’.


This evokes another memory associated with a play, Vidyottama, written and directed by one of the most acclaimed playwrights and theatre directors of today, Professor Mohan Maharishi. Several years ago, I got the unique opportunity to be cast by him, to play the role of Vidyottama, the unsung wife of the great Kalidas, whom history did not give her due. It was fascinating how the genesis of the play took place. Mauni Baba, a monk who had been in silence for several years in Ujjain, felt strongly that Vidyottama’s story had to be told, especially her contribution and erudition, besides the role she played as the intellectual mate of her husband Kalidas. She was such a formidable force in her scholarship of the vedas and shastras, including the Natya Shastra, that scholars thought twice before taking her on. Inspired by her character, and by drawing upon both truth and imagination, Professor Maharishi fleshed out a woman, who shined forth in all her magnificence.

In the play, by virtue of being granted a boon, she is able to travel in both time and space. Consequently, what emerged, was a woman belonging to the classical era, as well as the contemporary world. So, while she possessed a fine aesthetic sensibility, she also experienced the horrors of modern day society, where women are brutally violated and where aggression is the order of the day. Most importantly, she, much like Unniarcha, is drawn towards following her spiritual calling in life. The play, therefore, unfolded at many levels — within the apparent role of being Kalidas’s partner, where her intelligence, and ratiocination with him, often rendered him surprised and at a loss for words. She also exemplified a seeker, who had to gradually withdraw from the world. And the complexity and intensity of her character was delineated through the varied hues of Mohiniyattam, Kalaripayattu and contemporary body language. It was perhaps the most fulfilling artistic experience of my life.

Sita and Soorpanakha highlight the two polarities of grace and aggression in the most lucid way and compel us to delve into the very essence of femininity and what we understand by it. While Sita epitomises all that is synonymous with femininity, grace, beauty, love, and compassion, Soorpanakha is a travesty of femininity — fearful and terrifying. Her aggression, jealousy and terrifying demeanour evoke fear and contempt.

History has revealed, time and again, that the most powerful beings have been those full of love and compassion and individuals who chased and sought power, often through violent means, failed miserably. A broader perspective brings us to the question if violence and aggression are a mark of power/manhood, or, in fact, signs of fear.

This brings us to realise that balance needs to be restored in society – where feminine qualities of love, nurturing and harmony, come into more prominence.

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