By Bharath

Mohiniyattam student Amith discusses the gender politics and other socio-political phenomena in the field.

“The act of dancing holds various meanings personally, but perhaps most of all it’s a ‘political act’ for me,” reflects Amith, as he starts narrating his journey so far with Mohiniyattam.

Amith. K, 27, hailing from Vadakara, Kerala, has been learning the classical dance form for almost two years now, under the guidance of esteemed Mohiniyattam dancer Guru Nirmala Panicker, from Natanakairali – Research Training and Performing Centre for Traditional Arts at Irinjalakkuda. He has also been pursuing his PhD in Malayalam literature since January 2018, from Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit at Kalady, with the research topic revolving around – The philosophy of friendships in Kerala society, its evolution and transformation across eras.

It would be apt to say that Amith’s research did accelerate his decision to study this classical dance form formally. Just like poetry or literature, dance and other art forms have significant roles in understanding and analysing the subject of friendships deeply. While he was delving more into the narratives of female friendships and inspecting elements like Sakhi (സഖി) and Sakhithwam (സഖിത്വം) connected to his research topic, he learned about their deep influence on Mohiniyattam (and vice versa). The research work and scholarship also meant that he was independent and stable financially – something which he had yearned for, before he could decide on pursuing an interest like dance.

The learning environment he experienced at Natanakairali was exactly what he had wished for ideologically, Amith says. Nirmala Panicker – a veteran and erudite in the field of Mohiniyattam – encouraged the students to conduct constructive discussions and analyses of the ideas of preconceived masculinity and femininity in classical dancing, as well as involved herself in them. In an age when the politics of gender identity were being highlighted so much and age-old societal gender norms were challenged across all walks of life, it was high time that such prejudices in Mohiniyattam were examined too, Amith points out.

Amith with his Guru Nirmala Panicker

But how exactly did this notion of gender-bracketing get cemented in a versatile art form like Mohiniyattam? According to Amith, the underlying problem lies in a whole lot of assumptions made on the “dos and don’ts” at different points of time, passed on through generations. These mostly had little to do with the elements of Mohiniyattam which represented its true essence, but were rules formed adhering to the conventions of the society. Thus, sprung a strong fixation with labelling it a feminine dance form, and the idea of men practising it being looked down upon.  

“Firstly, it would be wrong to opine that Mohiniyattam had only contained female presence right from the beginning, contrary to what most people think,” Amith says.

In olden times, there was the presence of a Nattuvan (a man) along with a female dancer during a performance. As the dance form was revamped much later, the concept of Nattuvan disappeared too. Also, Mohiniyattam being a very expressive classical dance form meant that the various enactments – the mudras and other aspects of it – had a prominent flow and grace to it. The society considered those typically feminine, thus labelling the dance form itself so.

But while this was much harder to challenge in the past eras and societies, it’s pertinent to question these rigid notions of “objective masculinity and femininity” in this age where non-binary gender concepts are being discussed, Amith points out. Even in the context of this discussion, perhaps the more politically correct phrase that can be used will be “non-female” and not “male artists” to include transgender community too.  

“Rather than thinking women took over a whole dance form and held it only for themselves, there are more nuanced and deeper social aspects that led to such a gender fixation,” Amith says. Because, Kathakali – another one of Kerala’s renowned classical art forms – had always been pretty much a male-dominated platform, and continues to be so. Kathakali also is considered to have more “performance value” and has held better stature than Mohiniyattam always. Similarly, other classical dance forms across various cultures, like a Bharatanatyam or Odissi, had also once been purely practised by female dancers. Social changes mostly forced the modernisation, or rather evolution, of these dance forms as well. There arose a strong male presence in them, with many of the present-day icons being male dancers too.

Yet, oddly enough, for a State like Kerala lauded for its many socio-cultural evolutions, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, such a parallel transformation never really took off in Mohiniyattam, Amith muses.

While Kerala never really had the Devadasi system unlike other regions of India (including South India), just like elsewhere the dance performers in a royal court were considered a community of their own. Like many other art forms, Mohiniyattam also thrived commendably in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially under the rule of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma. But the evolving structures of Kerala society, with a deep influence of the Victorian morality codes of the British culture, meant that Mohiniyattam got branded as an unsophisticated dance form, practised by those women in the lower rungs of society.

“The gestures, the themes, the dance itself came to be termed asabhyam – lewd – at a time,” Amith says.

Perhaps it was the determination to deconstruct this prejudice against Mohiniyattam, a well-intentioned attempt indeed, that forced it to be altered in various manners during its rejuvenation in the 20th century – all of which weren’t quite constructive. The establishment of Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930 was a major boost not just for Mohiniyattam but other traditional and classical art forms of Kerala. But an obvious side-effect of this was the hijacking of these art forms by the upper class/caste sections in the Malayali society. Amith also feels that it’s important to note the predominant male involvement in the establishment and building of Kerala Kalamandalam, starting from its founder Vallathol Narayana Menon. There were also prominent figures like Krishna Panicker Asan (the teacher of Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, known as ‘The mother of Mohiniyattam’) and Kalamozhi Krishna Menon during this era.

At the same time, there was a clear shift towards changing the earlier structure of Mohiniyattam and to make it more “noble and sophisticated”, or in other words, something that could be learnt, practised and performed by upper-class/caste girls and women. Thus, staying within a patriarchal, privileged structure itself, the classical dance form was pushing away active male participation. This shift wasn’t uncommon in other regions as well during those times, like with a classical dance form as Bharatanatyam, Amith mentions.

(Perhaps, a silver lining in this could be how despite a strong patriarchal power structure in the academic/administration classical dance platforms, women – albeit from privileged backgrounds – have come to the front considerably over the years in Mohiniyattam).

While we’re on this topic, it’s extremely relevant to talk about the social privilege framework – specifically religion, caste, community based – within classical art form circles in Kerala, including Mohiniyattam, Amith says.

“A land like Kerala which has seen so many successful socio-political movements for more than a century is the last place one would assume privilege to rule over talent and passion.” Yet, the aforementioned privileges still hold deep-rooted influence in Mohiniyattam and art in general, and regardless of the status of a renowned centre like Kalamandalam, it’s a worrisome fact that such discrimination exists even to this day, he adds.

Photo Credit: Azad

A much-highlighted incident in recent times involved Dr. RLV Ramakrishnan’s attempted suicide alleging caste discrimination by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy. Ramakrishnan, a Ph.D. holder in Mohiniyattam from Kerala Kalamandalam, is one of the handful of male figures of this era actively involved in the dance form and has been performing for more than two decades now. Amith says that with all his impressive credentials and work, if someone like Ramakrishnan, whom Amith also looks up to, struggles to receive due recognition owing to his Dalit identity, the issue is much more serious than meets the eye. It’s a common scenario where someone’s caste gets blatantly inquired before providing them a platform to perform.

“The discrimination more often than not isn’t as visible if you are inspecting who is denied an opportunity, as when you try to see who is conveniently getting opportunities through their social privilege,” he reflects.

Amith recalls another incident in which he was personally involved. He, along with a few other classmates, were supposed to perform in a temple. When they reached the venue, the temple authorities noticed that one of the students was Japanese, rather a non-Hindu, whom they considered “unholy” to enter the temple premises. They refused to let the group perform to which the students raised objections, but to no avail. Obviously, there was no board outside displaying the statement – “non-Hindus are denied entry into the temple” – simply because they couldn’t, Amith says. He notes with some amusement the subtle ways in which religious/caste discrimination is practised in their dance circles, just like how the general society operates.

“Still, there’s definitely positive cultural, social and political shifts happening in the Mohiniyattam circle, especially in the last decade or so,” Amith feels. Artists like RLV, Dr. Divya Nedungadi, Dr. KM Abu are some of those in the current era who started and continue to hold progressive discussions, particularly through their work and knowledge in the field. While Abu is the first Muslim academic and the first male dancer to obtain a PhD in Mohiniyattam, Nedungadi is an accomplished dancer who has been vocal about the discrimination and other problematic tropes within the environment. Similarly, the Chennai-based dancer Gopika Varma had spoken at length about the introduction of a male Sakhi in Mohiniyattam themes. Such an idea, several years back, would have been discarded immediately, Amith says.

“We can stay true to a dance form, yet break the stereotypes and pedantry surrounding it,” Amith adds. There’s no bigger example for him than his own guru when it comes to this.

For Amith, the intellectual space Natanakairali has provided matters in more ways than merely learning and grasping Mohiniyattam. Growing up, he says he was subject to the typical bullying owing to his nature, which was considered non-masculine as per society’s conventions, sadly a very common trope promoted around us, encouraged by popular culture too. In hindsight it may have very well discouraged any interest hee had back then in pursuing his love for classical dance. It was during his post graduate phase that Amith came out as gay to those in his close circles, and that enabled him in embracing more aspects of his identity. Dance was one of those things that had always been a part of his inner self, and when things fell into place eventually, he could confidently follow it.

Photo Credit: Azad

It’s hard to pinpoint what needs to be changed first for a giant leap to happen in the field of Mohiniyattam, Amith says. There are numerous things that have to work in parallel. A less judgemental approach to transformation and evolution of the classical dance form is definitely one of them. He talks of an incident where a student performing was barraged with questions on the minutest of technicalities by an “educated audience”, ignoring the actual performance in the process. And of course, the fixation with gender norms has to be shattered. Amith mentions how it even hinders female dancers in a way, as those who don’t visibly exhibit society’s conventional female characteristics or even a preconceived grace, are critiqued unfairly for that.  

Classical dance getting reduced just for performances, shows and youth festivals haven’t really helped the cause either in the last few decades. While it had become more apparent in an art form like Kathakali, Mohiniyattam suffered in a different way in the sense that it started getting shadowed by Bharatanatyam more, Amith feels. For some reason, there got cemented an idea that Mohiniyattam was the one with lesser flair of the two. Young girls (and even boys) were more eager to learn Bharatanatyam due to the attention it could garner and the performance opportunities. But like most art forms, with enough, and genuine, focus given on Mohiniyattam, it could be rejuvenated a lot more, he concludes.

As for Amith, he had been back home for a lengthy period like most people during the pandemic time and the weekly dance classes at Natanakairali had eventually resumed online sometime last year. A couple of months back, they finally started attending the classes at the institute itself, something he had been eagerly waiting for so long. While his academic focus right now is concentrated on his research, Amith certainly plans to learn and research on some topic related to classical dance in the future, possibly in Mohiniyattam itself. And hopefully continue performing as well.

After all, as he says – dance is a personal, political act.

By Bharath