Mohiniyattam is one of the most lyrical classical dance traditions that originated in Kerala, the land of palm trees, backwaters, caparisoned elephants, Kathakali, Koodiyattam, and innumerable folk arts, as well as mystic arts and festivals. Known for its soft and graceful movements, Mohiniyattam is often described as a dance form filled with feminine grace, reminiscent of the gentle sway of palm leaves in the breeze. The term “Mohini” translates to “enchantress,” and “Attam” refers to dance, highlighting its traditional association with women performers.
The roots of Mohiniyattam can be traced back to the golden era of arts and literature in 16th-17th century Kerala. The Balaramabharatam, authored by Karthika Tirunal Balarama Varma, is considered by some scholars an authentic treatise on Mohiniyattam, elaborating on chapters from the ancient Natyashastra. The concept of Mohini is also depicted in the murals and sculptures of 18th-century temples and palaces, further emphasizing its historical significance.
The earliest known textual reference to Mohiniyattam is found in the commentary on the “Vyavaharamala,” a Sanskrit text written by Mazhamangalam Namboodiri during the 16th century. This commentary, attributed to a Brahmin scholar who migrated to Kerala, translates the term for “dancers” as “Mohiniyattam artist, etc.” Additionally, Mohiniyattam finds a mention in the script of Ghoshayatra, a theatrical art form called Ottanthullal, authored by Kunchan Nambiar in the 18th century.
Mohiniyattam stands out as an art form that has experienced multiple revivals and renaissance throughout its history. Notable efforts include those of Maharaja Swati Tirunal (1813-1846) and Kerala’s esteemed poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, who made significant contributions in 1932, 1937, and 1950.
Early pioneers such as Thankamani, the first student of Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam, and Guru Gopinath played a vital role in preserving the tradition. Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma and Kalamandalam Sathyabhama emerged as the protégés of Vallathol’s later efforts in 1937 and 1950, respectively, through this institution. Notably, Guru Sathyabhama, who served as the Principal of Kerala Kalamandalam from 1957 to 1993, made significant contributions to Mohiniyattam’s aesthetic development. She incorporated indigenous elements into hairstyles, introduced more adavus (steps), and expanded the mudras (hand gestures) repertoire, enhancing the art form’s appeal and authenticity. Through the tireless dedication of these influential figures, the tradition of Mohiniyattam has thrived, captivating audiences with its elegance and grace.