The canvas of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ(also spelt Mohiniāṭṭaṁ, Mohini Āṭṭaṁ) has been painted many strokes of conclusions by scholars and Gurus. Some overlap each other with contradicting strokes while some spaces of canvas has remained blank, untouched not knowing the texture of that particular space. The history of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ has been a study filled with debates and controversies. Certain spaces of its history still remain unknown while the origin has many various conclusions.
As every scholar produces a new book in a different decade, there seems to be something new to learn and a few old to unlearn. The same can be said of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ repertoire.“In its random periods of existence” Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ’s repertoire was worked and reworked. By the time of the late 21st century, four different baṇishad emerged.And,Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ had desi compositions, mārgi compositions, and was structured according to region, kinetics and lāsya. Unlike other forms where repertoire only evolved with time, Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ suffered with structural ambiguity. The decadence and revival of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ seem to lead to progress but by compromising on a few authentic compositions. Such compositions identified Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ to its decadence and even led it to further abyss. Come the 21st, scholars have boldly walked back into the abyss and pulled out those compositions and given an authentic foundation and presented it classically. Perhaps, rarely has a dance form gone through such turmoil in its repertoire in connection to its history. Hence it becomes crucial to understand and fathom Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ’s journey in a short synopsis.
The background of mohiniyāṭṭaṁ has many dimensions, namely; mythological, history, decadence, community analysis, and revival. As mentioned before, an understanding of these various dimensions will give one perspective of mohiniyāṭṭaṁ repertoire as it is in the contemporary era. It also helps one understand further the debatable controversies surrounding the art form and its performance. It is important to remember that unlike bharatanāṭyaṁ that has a chronological record of its growth from various centuries, the study of mohiniyāṭṭaṁ is a difficult and blurred task. Mainly due to the lack of any recorded document, the study is based on record of dāsiyāṭṭaṁ and hear say. However, one can confirm that below has now become the accepted background of mohiniyāṭṭaṁ after much research and logical conclusions.
“The role of the Mohini is to exclusively enchant”
The mythological background of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ is the dance of Viṣṇu in his avatār as Mohini. This avatār uses her lāsya as a power to enchant the evil with the very reason to destroy it.
Lord Śiva, being pleased by the demon, Bhasmāsura’s penance, granted him his boon. The boon that he had desired was that, all on whom he places his palm would be perished to ashes. In his desire to conquer the universe, Bhasmasura tried to place it on the lord himself. Petrified, lord Śiva seeks Viṣṇu’s help and hence in the form of Mohini, Viṣṇu enchants Bhasmāsura into a duel of dancing and succeeds in tricking Bhasmāsura to place the hand upon his own head.
Another common legend is again connected with Mohini’s appearance at the Samudra Manthana [the churning of ocean]. It is again Mohini’s enchanting charm that distracts the Asuras while she distributes the nectar [Amruta] to the Devas.
The two episodes are usually and popularly connected with this art form as its mythological origin and, as the origin of the term ‘Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ’: ‘Mohini’ being the enchantress ‘Āṭṭaṁ’ being the graceful dance of the enchantress. Bārati Śivaji has mentioned a third episode too, that of Viṣṇu in Mohini Avatar enchants Śiva and thus Ayyappa is born. Her reasoning is logical as here too Mohini’s purpose is to “enchant” and distract Śiva.
Bārati Śivaji also mentions Mohini in two other stories where she uses her charm to “enchant” demons. From her study one can conclude that it is not the legends that should be connected to Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ but the aspects of the avatar that needs to be connected. Shakti, divinity, lāsya is the origin for the word ‘Mohini + Āṭṭaṁ’ and when one looks deeper into the legends one can conclude that grace prevailed where force could not. If Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ’s origin is placed in mythology, then the connection that one needs to make is the movement of the feminine. The dance of the Mohini is not simply enchanting but also powerful.
The earliest known textual reference about Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ is found in a commentary on the Vyavahāramāla, a Sanskrit text written by Maḻamaṇgalam Nambūtiri assigned to 1709 A.D. “It speaks about the rules of sharing the fee received for this dance recital, among the concerned artistes”. Another reference on Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ can be found in the Tuḷḷal.(a semi-classical and semi-folk dramatic art form of Kerala) script Ghośayātra, authored by Kunjan Naṁbiyār during the 2nd half of the 18th century.
Various scholars make certain logical conclusions in the contemporary writings on the art form:
a. G.Venu connects Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ to the time of beginning of Malayalam language [around 11th century] hence making it purely a Keralite dance.
b. Bārati Śivaji connects it to Naṅgyār kūttu and dāsiyāṭṭaṁ.
c. Nirmala Panicker in her book believes Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ is an off shoot of Dāsiyāṭṭaṁ and that movements are inspired by naṅgyār kūttu
d. A particular article by M.K.K Narayanan says that Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ was constructed by Maharaja Swāti Tirunāḷ himself after a study of all feminine dances of Kerala.
Though the exact origin of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ in history cannot be judged or finalized, from the narratives one can conclude that Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ has evolved from Dāsiyāṭṭaṁ and “Āṭṭaṁ” has been influenced by the already existing feminine dances of Kerala.
Maharaja Swāti Tirunāḷ Bālarāma Varma (19th century) It is under Maharaja Swāti Tirunāḷ’s lineage that Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ thrived. Perhaps it is here that karnātik music was introduced into the repertoire of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ.Tanjore Quartet’s Vadivelu had found shelter in his kingdom after being banished from Tanjore provinces and later; his three brothers also seemed to have visited the Mahārāja. The Mahārāja is known to have requested Vaḍivelu to modify and reform Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ; he then constructed a few compositions for Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ by borrowing the foundation already set for bharatanāṭyam.
Swāti Tirunāḷ’s work has much to do with karnātik and hindustani rāgas. He himself has composed many padams, varṇaṁs, and a few tillānās for Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ.Irayimman Tampi, Kilimanoor Vidwan Koyitampuran, Ṣaṭkāla Govinda Mārār are the great legends who adorned his court. It is said that the Mahārāja had requested the poet Irayimman Tampi to compose padams and varṇaṁs for Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ. This upraise was the beginning that led to the downfall of the repertoire and its music that used to be a part of Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ before. It is here that Varṇaṁs, Jatiswaraṁs and Tillānāswere introduced. Like mentioned before, M.K.K Narayan even says thatit is in the court of Tirunāḷ that the foundation of the present Mohiniyāṭṭaṁ was constructed.