MOHINIATTAM-Dance of the Enchantress

  • Know about origin, evolution and technique of Mohiniattam, establishing of Kerala Kalamandalam and Dr Kanak Rele’s outstanding contribution.  

Mohiniattam is the dance of the enchanteress and not the dance of the seductress, as normally misunderstood by many. Mohiniattam is the elegant, lyrical classical dance of Kerala, prevailing for centuries and is normally performed by women. The dance movements symbolise the exquisite swaying of the palm trees of Kerala.


Mohiniattam is based on the lasya concept of dancing, which is the feminine, graceful style of dancing, initiated by goddess Parvati.


Origin and evolution

According to Hindu tradition and in varied sacred texts, there are various references to the word “Mohini” and the evolution of “Mohiniattam”. During Amruta Manthan (churning of the ocean) in order to seek the nectar of immortality, the tussle between the Devas (Gods) and asuras (demons), the demons almost succeeded and was about to snatch the pot of nectar but Lord Vishnu appeared as the beautiful damsel Mohini and took away the pot of nectar. Hence, Mohini is referred to as the beautiful woman of enchantment. The word Mohini is the derivative of the words Mohit and Moham.


Another popular story of Mohiniattam, is the story of the demon Bhasmasura.  Bhasmasura was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and due to his penance, the Lord was pleased to grant him boons that he wanted. Bhasmasura asked for the boon that whosoever head he keeps his hand on, they will perish. The boon is granted and the excited demon wanted to try it on Lord Shiva itself. Shiva ran for his life and meets Lord Vishnu who convinces Shiva and tells him not to worry. Lord Vishnu appears as the beautiful and enchanting Mohini and meets the demon. The demon is completely enchanted by her beauty as he proposes for marriage. Vishnu agrees and tells him that he could marry on the condition that he dances with her. The demon starts dancing with lot of enthusiasm and excitement. In the process places his hand on his head and immediately perishes.

Artist Saji Menon. 

Devadasis or servants of the Lord

Young teenaged girls were married to the Lord, in a temple ritual that prevailed in the 19th century. These girls were known as Devadasis or servants of the Lord. They learnt classical music and dance and performed regularly during social or religious occasions. The four styles adversely affected by the devadasi tradition were Bharata Natyam, Mohiniattam, Odissi and Manipuri.


Bharata Natyam was referred to Dasiattam, Sadir or the vadachi attam. In fact the word Mohiniattakari was a slang used as a form of abuse to describe a lady who had illicit relationships, while in the east, Odissi dancers were known as "maharis" and Manipuri dancers were known as "Meibis". The Britishers intervened and abolished it through the Devadasi Prevention Act. Unfortunately classical dancers suffered a stigma, hence girls and respectable families were not even allowed to watch a classical dance performance, as they were all devadasis.


After the establishment of Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930 by Mahakavi Vallathol, it was not easy to induce girls from respectable families to learn Mohiniattam. In fact Rukmani Devi Arundale was a pioneer who encouraged girls from respectable families to learn Bharata Natyam, describing the dance as sacred. Lawyer and dance critic E Krishna Iyer donned female attire in order to attract the attention of people, towards the sanctity of classical dance. Poet Rabindranath Tagore too intervened to give classical dance a new respectability.


Originally the devadasis were confined to the temples, but slowly they moved further on dancing to the tune of rich zamindars, chieftans and ultimately at the royal courts of kings. That is when the degradation of devadasis started, as the dance of the spirit was transformed to the dance of the body. The dancers did receive royal patronage but the sanctity of classical dances was deteriorating until great poets and social reformers like Mahakavi Vallathol and Rabindranath Tagore intervened to give dance a new respectability. Meanwhile the Britishers described the devadasis as “nautch girls” and finally the devadasi movement was banned by the Government. It is not only the devadasis but the society is equally responsible for their degradation.

Artist Deepti O Bhalla. 

Mahakavi Vallathol establishes Kerala Kalamandalam

Poet Mahakavi Vallathol established Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930 at Cheruthuruthy. The intent was to induce and convince everyone that classical dances are essentially sacred, hence children and youngsters should come forward to learn these dance forms; Kathakali and Mohiniattam was taught but it was not easy to get teachers and students to learn.


The first teacher of Mohiniattam was Kalamandalam Kalyani Kutty Amma, wife of the legendary Kathakali actor Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. Kalyani Kutty Amms’s two daughters and grand-daughter Smitha Rajan are professional Mohiniattam exponents and mentors.

Artist Mythili Anoop.

Besides Kalyani Kutty Amma, several dancers and teachers have learnt Mohiniattam from Kalamandalm, the premier centre for performing arts in India, Kalamandalam Satyabhama, Sugandhi’, Nirmala  Panikkar and Kalamandalm Kshemavathy are among the senior most exponents. Some devoted dancers are Gopika Varma, who belongs to the royal family of Travancore, Shyamala Surendran, Jayaprabha Menon, Ayswaria Warrier, Geeta and Radhika Radhakrishna, Jayashree and Sujata Nair, Geeta Vijay S, Neena Prasad, Pallavi Krishnan, Rachita Ravi and Mythili Anoop etc

 Padma Bhushan Dr Kanak Rele. 

Padma Bhushan Dr Kanak Rele’s outstanding contribution

In spite of being a non-Malayalee, Padma Bhushan Dr Kanak Rele’s contribution towards propagation and enrichment of Mohiniattam is immense. In fact she is the only Mohiniattam dancer to be the recipient of the prestigious Padma Bhushan award. Kanak is the disciple of Kathakali exponent “Panchali” Karunakara Panicker. After receiving a grant from Ford Foundation, Kanak made a documentary on the three pioneer Mohiniattam exponents: Kalyani Kutty Amma, Chinnamuamma and Kunju Kutty Amma. 


She also evolved her own style with music, in the traditional Sopanam Sangeetam style, composed by Kavalam Narayan Panikkar. Kanak has introduced several new choreography projecting women empowerment with items like Amba and Draupadi. Kubja and Kalyani based on Tagore’s Chandalika. She has several performances all over the globe to the credit. Kanak has also written books on Mohiniattam, Bhava Nirupana, Dance vocabulary etc.

Artist Dimple Nair. 

Dr Kanak is a dance educationist too. She has established Nalanda Dance Research Centre’s Nalanda Nritya Kalamahavidyalya with degrees in dance up to the doctorate level. It is affiliated to Mumbai University and has trained several dancers, many of them are professional dancers and teachers like Madhuri Deshmukh, Dimple Nair (Doha), Sunanda Nair (USA) and young brilliant dancers Saji Nair and Megha Ahire Mohad. Mandakini Trivedi is a senior disciple who has won the Sangeeta Natak Akademi award.

Artist Saji Menon.  

Technique and music

While Mohinattam is considered an off shoot of both Bharata Natyam and Kathakali, the movements are slow, graceful and lyrical. This is enchanting and creates a fine visual appeal. While Kalamandalam follows its own bani (style), Dr Kanak Rele’s style has also become immensely popular.


Dr Geeta Radhakrishna has written and illustrated an exclusive book on Mohiniattam adavus and Mudras which is based on Hasta Lakshana Deepika, Natya Sastra, Abhinaya Darpana, Sangeeta Ratnakara and Bharatarnava. 150 adavus (dance units) and 24 mudras (hand gestures) are portrayed. Geeta has also written Mohiniattam – dance of the enchanteress and other books.


Music is in both Carnatic and Sopanam styles. The themes are drawn from Hindu tradition and compositions used are of Maharaja Swati Tirunal and poet Irayimman Thampi.


Mohiniattam Overseas

Besides Dr Kanak Rele’s performances in different countries, other dancers who have performed overseas include Bharati Shivaji, Deepti Omcherry bhalla, Jayaprabha Menon, Geeta Radhakrishna,Ayswaria Warrier, Gopika Varma etc.


To read all articles by author

To read all articles on Indian Dance

Experiencing Theyyam Dance of Kerala

To read Arts, Crafts Dance traditions of Kerala

To read a Paper on the Devdasi System 


Guru Vijay Shanker is a professional Kuchipudi, Kathakali exponent, dance teacher, choreographer, actor and arts critic for over four decades, contributing for national and international publications. He is particularly credited for his lecture-demonstrations on Indian classical dancing which is a fine combination of both education and entertainment.


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