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‘Ambassador of Mohiniyattom’ Graces Atlanta

October 2003
‘Ambassador of Mohiniyattom’ Graces Atlanta

The lights dim, and there is an expectant hush as the audience settles down. A spark of light, appearing slowly on the darkened stage, sways and flickers and then grows into a leaping flame. A dancer, a vision attired in the purest of whites, steps slowly, languorously to the front of the stage, bearing in her hand the traditional Nilavilakku (lamp) of Kerala.

No, this scene was not set in 'God's own country' in the southeast comer of India. It was at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Riverdale, Georgia, and the occasion was the mesmerizing performance of Mohiniyattom by Dr. Kalamandalam Radhika. Atlanta (like most cosmopolitan U.S. cities) has an over-abundance of regional cultural associations from India, all offering diverse windows through which the rich panoply of Indian culture might be viewed. Still, no forum had yet hosted any classical event that was truly from Kerala, the birthplace of two of India's seven classical dance forms. This want was felt deeply by a group of art aficionados from Kerala who, spearheaded by Manoj Kumar and Gita Maheshwaran, ventured forth to rectify this paucity.

Mohiniyattom is one of the most graceful and sensuous classical dance forms to have evolved in South India. With its highly emotive hand gestures and eye movements that are unique to this art form, the artiste etches in real life the celestial mohini, who charmed away the elixir of life from the asuras who stole it. And Dr. Radhika is a doyenne of this art, a veritable Mohini, who with her daring and original experiments and explorations at the frontiers of this dance form has given it new dimensions. This exemplary artiste who started her kalopasana (worship of art) at the tender age of three has choreographed and performed Mohiniyattom items in several languages. She has drawn her themes from extremely diverse sources such as Biblical stories and poetical works. She has performed in such a multitude of national and international forums that The Hindu calls her 'The Ambassador of Mohiniyattom'.

The evening's performance started with a brief introduction to Mohiniyattom as Dr. Radhika traced its evolution into a classical dance form and touched briefly on the significant features of this art. Bounded by the natural borders of the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east, Kerala has always enjoyed a certain geographical isolation and extremely benevolent climatic conditions. Art, especially stylized art, flourished under these circumstances because, in Dr. Radhika's words, "People had enough to eat, and so they had the leisure to focus on art". This was the milieu in which Mohiniyattom and Kathakali (the other classical dance form from Kerala) developed.

Dr. Radhika rendered seven items during her performance, starting with a Navarasanjali composed by K.C. Kesavapillai, in which the goddess Kali is propitiated by an offering of the Navarasas (the nine emotions) that form the cornerstone of Indian aesthetics. This was followed by 'Omanathinkal Kidavo...', the quintessential lullaby that plucks at the heartstrings of everyone who follows its gentle, soothing melody. The audience sat

entranced, wafted away to those halcyon days of childhood on the wings of nostalgia.

The famous kriti 'Krishna nee begane baro...' was perhaps the most compelling instance of Dr. Radhika's experimentations with the form and content of Mohiniyattom, in which she illustrated how this art form can transcend the limitations imposed by artificial barriers like language. This Kannada piece that is not part of the traditional Mohiniyattom repertoire had never been performed as a one until Dr. Radhika choreographed it. In this, the artiste explores every aspect of a mother's love for her child. The item ends when Krishna's mother sees the entire universe in his mouth, at which point the motherly love transcends into Bhakti.

The last item on this memorable evening was a thillana that brought out all the intricate and graceful movements of this art form.

A most noble and laudable aspect of this performance was that all the proceeds from this go to a charitable trust called 'Nritya Dhara' that seeks to ameliorate the living conditions of elderly and indigent artists who have long been forgotten by their fans and family. In Dr. Kalamandalam Radhika's words, "None of what I show on the stage is mine; everything comes from the blessing and munificence of God. I am thankful that He has chosen me to be a distributor of joy in the form of Mohiniyattom. And if by doing what I do, I can wipe the tears of these old and helpless masters, I need no other reward."

- Arun P. Madangarli


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