Thursday, July 25, 2024

Symphony of movement: MOHINIYATTAM takes centre stage 

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Prominent Mohiniyattam performer Dr. Deepthi Omchery Bhalla leads The Pioneer on an enlightening journey as she talks about the grace of this dance style and her personal interpretation of it.

SHIKHA DUGGAL
Laasya, the flowing enchantment of Mohiniyattam, was presented on stage by the acclaimed dancer Deepti Omchery Bhalla. The exquisite dance known, also known as “dance of the enchantress,” originates from Kerala. The essence of femininity, laasya, is embodied in this graceful dance form.
Picture elegant moves that resemble soft waves lapping against the coast, entwined with expressive hand gestures and nuanced feelings expressed by the dancer’s gaze. Mohiniyattam is that! In an exclusive interview with us, Deepti tells us more about the beauty of this dance form and how she interprets it: “Raghava Thanam Pallavi Vidwans, including T.S. Raghavan, were among the renowned Carnatic stalwarts who taught me the art of Carnatic music after my mother at home. Later, I expanded my expertise by doing my BA, MA and MPhil in Carnatic music. I have a profound understanding of rhythm because of my intense training in Carnatic music. But my musical path was not limited to it. My mother exposed me at an early age to the rich tradition of folk and religious songs that have been passed down through the generations in both her village and the village of my father. These songs were sung on many occasions and grew to be an essential part of our culture.” Later, with the help of her mother, she explored the complexities of Sopana music as her awareness grew. The minor contrasts between Carnatic and Sopana singing were made evident by this distinctive technique.
The famous dancer goes on to say, “I consider myself extremely fortunate to have learned from legendary Kathakali masters. I learned how to control eye expressions and mudras (hand motions) from them. These are the essential components of Kathakali. This instruction was really helpful when I started learning Mohiniyattam. After practicing Kathakali for 12 years, my body was rather rigid, so at first, transitioning was difficult. In order to tackle this, I consulted a master who had previously trained under a group artiste connected to Uday Shankar in Almora. I became more flexible because of the special moves he showed me. It was only at that point that I started studying Mohiniyattam with Kalyani Kuttyamma.” Her comprehension of Raga Paddhati, or the system of ragas, and the grammar involved in constructing a raga, however, was enhanced by Carnatic music. For example, you cannot insert a swara (musical note) in Kambhoji singing that is not part of its grammatical framework. Her choreography reflected this knowledge.
“I deliberately focused on these two areas during my training. I still exercise extreme caution when choreographing. My students never use dramatic movements when they do expressive dance. The essence of the style is always delicate. Alongside the nuanced facial expressions and body language, my singers have received training from me. They refrain from using superfluous frills and gamaka (ornaments) in their singing. Rather, they concentrate on a gentle, lilting tune that highlights the performers’ emotions and makes a lasting impression on the listener,” adds the enchantress.
For her, realising the limitations of each pupil was essential to becoming a guru. Every disciple has a unique method of learning. For instance, some students have innate skills and can pick up and sing raga phrases in Carnatic music with ease. They might, however, rapidly forget them and become stuck in subsequent performances. There are comparable difficulties at Mohiniyattam. Not only is retention capacity essential for learning and presenting, but it is also necessary for regular practice. She feels that the greatest difficulty is for a guru to confront these constraints and provide meaning to every phrase when instructing on a raga. For instance, she would accompany each sung line in pieces she was teaching with notation.
“The lack of dedicated training is the biggest danger facing traditional performance today,” she believes. “Before taking the stage for official concerts, performers spend very little time mastering an art form. Second, a lot of dancers attempt to master a range of dance styles from many geographical areas, each with its own unique cultures, languages and customs. This produces a state of confusion that is devoid of the clarity required to succeed as a stage performer! Trying to innovate before you’ve mastered a certain dance form is much riskier. A solid history is necessary for innovation. Your creative expression might not be grounded in the art form itself without this basis. This may jeopardise the authenticity that distinguishes any dancing form.”
Her mother, a musicologist, provided vital assistance, and she also had rigorous training in Kathakali, Sopana Sangeetam and Carnatic music. Her solid academic background, developed at the Delhi University Music Department, where she taught Carnatic music for 40 years, proved to be a great asset. It made it easy for her to communicate with well-known performers from Kerala’s many performance traditions. “I was also able to easily understand the rhythmic and syllabic complexities of Kerala’s stage ritualistic music because of my solid background in dance and music. My Nrityaprabandham, “Adikeshava Nrityaprabandham,” composed of Tarangani Vritta and Dukkaragam, has carefully integrated these ideas. On June 14, this work was performed live at the NCPA, Mumbai. I had deliberately decided to use certain Vaitharis (rhythmic passages) from particular ritualistic Thalas for this performance. I had also added lovely passages from folk traditions such as Arjunan Ritham and Mayilpeeli Thookam, in addition to other rhythmic patterns derived from other types of percussion instruments.”
The dancer-turned-professor also made a statement that had us in stitches: “Recognition is proof of immense hard work, dedication and unwavering devotion to the art form. It is not a simple thing to obtain. Getting many accolades at different venues is a different story. Becoming recognised by industry veterans is the first step toward true recognition. In my own teaching career, I may have been lucky. I gave music my all, which led to a well-earned promotion to senior professor and subsequently, my retirement as the department head and dean. This, too, was evidence of the effort put in. I applied the same commitment to my dance profession, where I aimed for artistic brilliance. And happily, acknowledgment came next. I’m just appreciative of everything.”
Teaching young children, especially those as young as 5 or 6 years old, requires a different method than the conventional one, according to her mother’s constant beliefs. Even though one can now start learning an art form at the age of 12, 15, or even 20, her mother used to teach young kids using a certain technique. The dancer responded, “I believe all the ICCR tours, right from the very first Festival of India in Russia organised by the Indian government in 1987, have been incredibly, deeply satisfying experiences,” when asked how she uses this platform after being recognised in the ‘Outstanding’ category by the I.C.C.R. “Both Eastern and Western Europe have been visited on these travels. A thrilling aspect has also been present in some of these performances. They’ve given us the chance to engage with very diverse audiences, many of whom may not have seen Mohiniyattam. And then, several things inspired me to pursue my scholarly interests. First off, my comprehension of Carnatic music has been greatly enhanced by my studies, which have exposed me to a wide spectrum of musical compositions. I also greatly appreciate my mother, for her tremendous support. Second, my research made me concentrate on Keralam music’s melodic elements.” In comparison to Abhinaya, she thought Mohiniyattam lacked, at least in part, the emphasis on pure dance and the combined aspects of dance and expression. As a result, this component has been the subject of all of her projects efforts that have been funded by the Ministry of Culture and Production. Notably, she was the only artiste selected to get a special honour for her choreography and research presentation on this particular topic during India’s golden jubilee independence celebrations.
In a different context, the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Awardee states: “There were large losses prior to technological support. Many manuscripts that contained crucial knowledge about traditional art forms, have simply vanished. In addition, the lack of interest from younger generations caused a great deal of our nation’s rich oral traditions to disappear, which contributed to the decline and even death of numerous art forms. Nonetheless, technological advancements have significantly improved research and archiving efforts. However, the validity of artistic forms is seriously jeopardised by digital alteration! Technology provides excellent tools for preservation, but we still need to exercise caution. Instead of altering and shaping these artistic forms to fit our modern tastes, we should employ technology to record and preserve them in their original form. In order to ensure that future generations can enjoy these customs as they were originally intended, our priority should be to preserve the essence of these traditions.”

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