Pallavi Krishnan, one of the leading faces in the performing art form of Mohiniyattam, is acclaimed for her versatility as a performer, choreographer and trainer.
Renowned for her perseverance to promote and preserve this style of dance as a living tradition, Pallavi Krishnan received her initial training in Baratanatyam and Mohinyattam under Guru Kalamandalam Sankaranarayanan. After completing her graduation in Dance (Kathakali) from the prestigious Santiniketan (Viswa Bharathi University), her overriding passion for Mohiniyattam led her from Santiniketan to Kerala Kalamandalam, thus making Pallavi Krishnan the only dancer who is an alumnus of these two coveted national arts academies.
Pallavi Krishnan continued her rigorous studies under Guru Bharati Shivaji and Guru Kalamandalam Sugandhi. As an artiste, Pallavi Krishnan is equally at ease in terms of exhibiting both the adavu (technique) and abhinayam (facial expression). What’s more the quality and perfection of years’ long intense institutional training is highly discernible in every bit of her movements and stage portrayals making her amazingly distinctive from her contemporary performing artists, opine critics and dance scholars. This has made Pallavi Krishnan the most sought after Mohiniyattam performer and a trendsetter for many young performing artists to take up this art form professionally. What with her dexterous and skillful choreographs, both solo and group – traditional and thematic – enriched the repertoire of Mohiniyattam in a humongous way. Pallavi Krishnan’s never say die and uncompromising teaching has attracted students from all over the world. Pallavi Krishnan is also the recipient of a slew of honours including the prestigious Kerala State Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her contribution to the art form of Mohiniyattam.
Hailing from West Bengal, Pallavi Krishnan completed her formal education by obtaining B.Sc., in Bio Science from Burdwan University. After her graduation, she pursued learning Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam under Guru Kalamandalam Sankaranarayanan. She has also obtained B Mus in Dance (Kathakali) from world renowned Santiniketan (Viswa Bharati University), set up by none other than the Nobel Laureate, Gurdev, Ravindranath Tagore. Pallavi Krishnan had two years of intensive and rigorous training in Mohiniyattam from Kerala Kalamandalam Leelamma and advanced training in Mohiniyattam under Guru Bharati Shivaji and Guru Kalamandalam Sugandhi. Furthermore, Pallavi Krishnan also pursued MA in Mohiniyattam from Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University in Kerala.
Awards and Accolades
Pallavi Krishnan has bagged many awards and accolades for her commitment and contribution towards Mohiniyattam. The important recognition includes Sushree Award of the Vichar-Manch Kolkata, for most outstanding talent in Indian Classical Dance; National Scholarship from Government of India for higher studies in Mohiniyattam; Junior Fellowship of Government of India, Department of Culture, to compose and choreograph new dance pieces using Sopana Sangeetham (Idaikka – Percussion, which is one of the main instruments in the traditional music of Kerala); Senior Fellowship of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India to research about Jayadev’s Geeta Govindam and its adaptability for the lasya elements of Mohiniyattam and Kerala State Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Award of 2008 for Mohiniyattam.
Pallavi Krishnan has presented a range of performances such as Santiniketan in West Bengal, Rabindra Bharati University, Soorya Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Nishagandhi Festival of Department of Tourism, Government of India; Mamallapuram Festival of the Government of Tamil Nadu; Doverlane Music and Dance Conference in Kolkata, National Dance Festival of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, Goa, Kolkata and Manipur; World Women’s Day celebration Festival of Smitalay (Smita patil Memorial Trust), Mumbai; various Sabhas in Chennai; Natyanjali Festival at Chidambaram Shiva Temple; National Festival of Dance on the occasion of the inauguration of the year long Platinum Jubilee celebration of the Kerala Kalamandalam; Natya Kala conference (sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai); Konarak Festival of Government of Odhisa; Bhagya Chandra Festival in Manipur; Deccan Festival at Hyderabad by the Department of Culture, Government of Telangana; Mudra Festival, Department of Culture, Government of Kerala; Rabindra Nrityotsav of Impressario India, Delhi to celebrate 150th birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore; Mohiniyattam Collective, New Delhi; Kalakshetra Annual Festival in Chennai; Ananya Festival in New Delhi; Horizon Series of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi and Malabar Festival, Department of Tourism, Government of Kerala. In addition to that, she has also performed at two major festivals in India Khajuraho Festival, Ananya Festival Delhi and Kalakshetra Dance Festival Chennai.
Pallavi Krishnan’s overseas performance includes Woodford Festival in Australia; performances at various centres in Canada including Admonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto under the auspices of the ICCR; Toronto International Dance Festival, Performance and Workshop that includes Europe Nehru Centre, London and Rose Bruford College, Kent in the UK; Interactions Art Festival in Warsaw in Poland; UN Centre at Vienna in Austria; Art India at Bern in Switzerland; Deputation to Bangladesh as Cultural Ambassador under the aegis of the Indian High Commission in Dhakha and the ICCR to disseminate Mohiniyattam through short term intensive workshops and performances; Macau International Arts Festival; Kerala Festival in Qatar; Performances in Mauritius under the auspices of ICCR; she has also performed in all over the US including the “Erasing Borders Festival” in New York, in the UK for the festival celebrating the 70 years of Indian Independence in 2017, Mauritius.
Pallavi Krishnan’s latest choreography is Shivangi (Solo) based on the Ardhnariswar concept from Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavanm. Shivangi – It is an exerpt from Kalidasa’s Kumarsambhavam. while Shiva is busy doing his penance (tapas), Parvathi is ordered by her father Himalaya to arrange things and assist Shiva for his penance and puja. Parvathi’s love for Shiva increases. But being Yogi Shiva has no feelings for Parvathi. To infuse love in Shiva Kamadeva with his friend Vasatha and wife Rathi arrive in Shiva’s abode Kailasa. While Kamadeva was about to shoot his Kamavanam Shiva opens his eyes and seeing Kamadeva’s act he gets tremendously angry and with his third eye Shiva burns Kamadeva into ashes. Parvathi realises that Shiva has no feelings for her. A disheartened Parvathi decides to do intense tapas to achieve Shiva as her husband. With her tapas Shiva becomes pleased and offers half of his body to Parvathi and Shiva-Parvathi becomes one. Prof Sundarshan had selected the verses and the Music composition was Sri Palakkad Suryanarayanan.
Rituranga depicts six seasons. The descriptions of nature as well as the effects of the seasons on the human mind are woven together in this choreography. The verses that introduce each of the six seasons are adapted from Sanskrit litterateur Kalidasa’s Ritusamhar, and set to Sopana Sangeetham. Each season is elaborated with lyrics from Rabindra Sangeet, the musical compositions of Tagore. While Kalidasa describes the emotions that the different seasons arouse, Tagore’s songs gel us about the diversity of the seasons as reflected in the many colours of nature.
Salabhanjika (The Sculpture)
In South India, many temples have Salabanjika, stone sculptures in the shape of a woman holding a lamp set in place as a sacred guard to the deity. The Salabanjika in this choreography is no ordinary stone. It has the essence of Ahalya in it.
Ahalya, a character from the Hindu Epic Ramayana, was turned into a stone by the curse of her husband and freed by Lord Rama. In the dance piece, a sculptor works tirelessly on the stone in which Ahalya has been lying dormant. The sculpture imparts all the grace of the feminine ideal creating a captivating Salabanjika that has a split personality.
Salabhanjika yearns for union with the sculptor and dreams of happiness, however ephemeral it might be. Ashalya, the bereaved spirit, feels shades of pain and awaits for salvation that Lord Rama will bring a contrast of worldly desire and spiritual divinity.
Urvashi (The Eternal Love)
An excerpt from Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasheeyam. The romance of Puravas and Urvashi, which Kalidasa dramatised in Vikramorvashiyam, is one of the most popular stories in Indian literature. It speaks about the eternal love between King Pururavas and the heavenly damsel, Urvashi. The choreography examines their initial union, follows their dramatic separation and recounts the couples’ tribulations. The climax of the piece is their exciting reunion.
Panchabuta (The five eternal elements of nature)
‘Panchabhuta’ is based on Sankaracharya’s Soundaryalahari and Taittariya Upanishad. It begins with the concept of Sakthi, the universal energy symbolised by the Mother Goddess. Lord Shiva represents the universal matter. Their unison is every action we perceive in the universe.
The choreography continues with explanation of the union of matter with energy evolved the five elements – the Panchabuta – sky, wind, fire, water and earth. Every human is a microcosm, a prototype of the universe, which is the macrocosm. The universal energy referred to as Kundalini remains in every human being as a three and a half coil, like a serpent in the Mooladhara Chakra at the tip of the spinal chord.
By spiritual practices, this energy unwinds and rises up in twisted swirls invoking the other five Chakras (energy centres) and leads through each of the above Chakras step by step. Once all these Chakras are invoked, it reaches the Sahasrara and the human being experiences the ultimate truth – the very cause of existence and the eternal continuum in the universe.
Pingala (The Courtesan)
Penned by Namangalam Madhavan Namboodiri, it tells the story of Pingala, a courtesan of Mithila, who transcends her worldly consciousness to a spiritual realm. The performance starts with a beautiful Pingala adorning herself like any other day and waiting for her wealthy patrons, extremely confident of her envying power to attract men.
That night, no one turns up. Her haughtiness turns to anxiety and despair. She doubts whether her beauty is fading away. Then again, she reassures herself that she is still so attractive, when she passes by the street, people throng to get a glimpse of her through the fluttering curtain of the palanquin. When she dances, every drop of sweat earns her wealth. She is confident that someone will come to her, no matter how late it is. Then the night passes by and a few more nights too, but none turns up.
Out of introspection, she realises that she had not shown gratitude to any man who came to her. She ignored everyone after extracting his wealth. A thoughtful Pingala awakens from the worldly life realising that external beauty is ephemeral in the darkest moment of her grief, Pingala hears an inner voice emerging within her – voice chanting the divine epithet of Lord Rama. She pleads to Lord Rama to save her from the pangs like the way he liberated Ahalya and Sabari from curse. She becomes an ardent devotee of Rama and commences her spiritual journey. Finally, she sees the aura of Lord Rama and surrenders herself to his feet.
Dashavatar (Ten incarnations)
Dashavatar refer to the ten incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu God universal preservation Lord Vishnu incarnates on Earth from time to time with a purpose, for the protection of good, the destruction of evil and the establishment of Dharma.
Jayadeva enumerates ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu in Geetha Govindam: Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise) varaha (boar), Narasimha (half man half lion), Vamana (dwarf), parashurama (Lord Rama with axe), Balarama (Ramachandra, the king of Ayodhya), Buddha and Kalki (Destroyer of Filth).
Choreography in Kathakali and Mohinyattam, two classy arts traditions from Kerala, by Kathakali Guru, Sadanam Balakrishnan and Mohiniyattam exponent Pallavi Krishnan.
Radha-Madhavam is portrayed as a dialogue between Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, two fascinating arts traditions of Kerala that competently highlights the masculine and feminine elements of traditional dance.
The longing of Radha and Krishna for each other, the eternal tale of Indian literature and aesthetics, is carried forward through generations since the 12th century. The story never makes one bored one bit; instead, each time its interpretation unveils another deeper meaning.
The relationship between Radha and Krishna is the best example of human embodiment of love, passion and devotion of platonic level. Radha’s passion for Lord Krishna symbolises the soul’s intense longing and willingness for the ultimate unification with God. Thus, Lord Krishna is the soul of Radha and in turn, she is by all means, the soul of Lord Krishna, making Radha the undivided form of Him.
This philosophical aspect is the highlight of the choreography that views Radha as the ‘Jeevathma’ and Lord Krishna as the ‘Paramatma.’ Radha’s longing for Lord Krishna and their union is equated with the Jeevatma’s ultimate merger with Paramatma, the point where the life becomes one with the soul. This process is bound to continue as long as the creation exists.
Lasya Academy of Mohiniyattam
Lasya Academy of Mohiniyattam is a renowned Institution offering professional training. Founded by Pallavi Krishnan back in 1995, the academy is known for churning out well-rounded students with theoretical and practical experience in the art form of Mohiniyattam. Pallavi Krishnan believes in combining traditional schooling, that is guru-shishya parampara, and an open attitude to produce high quality performing artists. Pallavi Krishnan is the Artistic Director of Lasya Academy of Mohiniyattam, which is located at ‘Charulata, Harinagar in Punkunnam, Thrissur District of Kerala.
As part of Lasya Muharika Episode 18, performing artist Malavika Menon did a live streaming through Zoom as early as July 24, 2020, in a free-wheeling conversation with Mohiniyattam exponent, Pallavi Krishnan. The Indian News is reproducing the interview with the kind consent of Malavika Menon.
During the introductory remark, Malavika Menon said: “Today we are in conversation with the very graceful, charming, Mohiniyattam dancer, Pallavi Krishnan, who is not just a dance, but she is an artist par excellence, teacher, choreographer, and her origins are in West Bengal, yet, over the years, she has had a very successful career in Mohiniyattam and Pallavi Krishnan has made the language of Kerala, and Mohiniyattam, her own. I am extremely glad and excited be in conversation with her.”
MM: We know that you are an established soloist and over the years, you had a hard journey I suppose, coming from Bengal to Kerala, studying under the rigorous training process at Kerala Kalamandalam. It was not all sweet, cake walk for you. Perhaps, you had a fair share of difficulties and hard work to have reached where you are today and to find your own words, through the language of Mohiniyattam to really explore and continue your explorations over the years. So, first thing I would like to ask you is, as I said, you are a soloist, yet you have also explored the world of group choreographs in Mohiniyattam. And one thing that I can say is that how you have explored the different art forms well in your group choreographs. So, would you talk about how you got inspired to do all these group choreographs?
PK: As you said, basically I am a soloist. I have studied Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam under the guidance of Guru Kalamandalam Leelamma Teacher and Guru Kalamandalam Padmini Teacher. Later I did my post graduation, also from Kerala Kalamandalam. So, having the lineage of Kerala Kalamandalam, my first preference has always been traditional solo performance. But, at the same time, I have done many group choreographs and thematic, experimental group choreographs.
To me, group choreography is not a mere dance presentation with a group of dancers..it is not. To me, it is a challenge. My creating process or the way I work, is a challenge. I am a person who love to take up challenges because may be the reason that I came all the way from West Bengal to Kerala alone, of course, with my Guru Kalamandalam Sankaranarayanan, who brought me here in Kerala. It was not easy and it was indeed a challenge. Why I am saying that group choreography is a challenge because first of all I need a good theme that conveys a message as well. The second thing is that it starts the brainstorming process of making it. Then, the execution part comes with ultimate professionalism and perfection.
All these things take time. For me, it takes months, sometimes years. I cannot conceive an idea today and I present it on the stage the next day. No, that is not possible for me. It takes time. Another thing is that what inspires me is important. You know, in West Bengal, it is a common practice that in schools and colleges, we take part in Tagore’s dance dramas. Right from our childhood, we take part in Tagore’s dance dramas. I also took part in many of Tagore’s dance dramas and I would like to name a few like Chandalika, Chithrangadha and more. Then, when I joined Santinikethan, to do my graduation in Kathakali, there it was an integral part of our performance that we take part in Tagore’s dance dramas. It happens all the time. And I was very fortunate to perform as lead female characters, including the famous dance drama of Tagore, Shyama.
I did the lead female character of Shyama. I was very fortunate to perform with the legendary Rabindra Sangeet singer, Kanika Bandhopadhay and she rendered the song of Shyama and we performed in many places like in Kolkata, Delhi and more. So, what happened was that I have already experienced the intricacies and the challenges of making of a group choreography, a dance drama or production. So, I have already faced the challenge. I already knew the challenges. So, all these things actually inspired me and also when I started my journey, even though, some experimental choreographs were happening in Mohiniyattam but not much in Kerala. So, when I started my career I was actually the first in my generation to attempt something out of the box and experimental and it was in 1997. It was Rituranga (six seasons). So, these are the things that inspired me.
MM: You mentioned challenges and that’s what drew you closer to these productions. And also from what you say, will it be right if I say that you liked working with co-dancers because it is a team work right? to do co-production and also you direct and choreograph, you get to do your choreographs and experiments on other dancers’ bodies. So, is that a challenge? Could you elaborate as to what were the challenges you faced?
PK: To do a group choreography or a big production, you definitely should have leadership qualities, otherwise you cannot. You should have a leadership quality as several dancers come from different backgrounds with different attitudes. You should have the ability to unite them. There should not be any ego clash and everybody should work like a single cohesive unit. So, that is a challenge and actually I love it. Like every coin has two sides, so, it is kind of choreographs have challenges, advantages and disadvantages as well. When I do a group choreography, synchronisation is the challenge. Syncronisation is very very important. All the things should sync together. If you have ten dancers on the stage, all should move like a single unit. The chemistry and connection between all the dancers on the stage is very very important and that has to be there. Also, if you like using of space, intricate formations and patterns, if you like it, you would love to do choreography. I like it.
But, at the same time, you have to see the theme and you cannot do patterns of choreographs and formations randomly. You should have in mind that there should be style, whether that is solo, traditional or thematic or whether it is group thematic choreography, there should be style. So, that should be maintained throughout, whether it is pattern, whether it is any other style. So, I look into that very well. The disadvantage I would say is that on stage improvisation is just not possible as everything is pre-fixed. You cannot change anything on stage. But, when you do a solo performance, that I really enjoy. If you are an experienced dancer and if you have a set of experience orchestra and sometimes on the stage if you get a brilliant idea you are able to execute the same on stage and further improvise. That is the advantage of solo performance as the whole stage is in your grip and in your hand. You can do anything, if you have a very good rapport with your musicians, you can make magic. But, at the same time, this group choreography also gives a kind of satisfaction. I am the person and I am the artist, who would like to do both. I think that I have the capacity or ability to handle both the areas with equal ease and I would like to take it forward.
MM: Lovely….we would love see more works. Like you said, the theme is very important. One more question related to what you were just saying is that so you decide to do group choreography or do you decide this has to go on your solo performance based on a theme, how does it work?
PK: Yeah, based on the theme. Sometimes, there are some concepts or themes, which can be more convincingly conveyed through group choreography. We can do solo also, but, suppose, sometimes when you do an abstract theme or elaborate a theme from epics like the Ramayana or Mahabaratha, where you have many characters where you have many stories, many situations, many scenes, which can be convincingly conveyed to the audience through group performance. For instance, there are so many people doing Bhavayami solo. There are people who do group choreography.
So, it all depends on how you do it. But I think when you show the whole of Ramayana, it is always good to present group choreography, if you have a number of performers. I will take the example of Panchabutha, I did, which is one of my abstract choreography, which speaks about five cosmic elements. So, when I wanted to do something on this theme and then I was thinking that it is a very common theme and how can I make it special. How can I give a message to the audience that is uncommon and not known to them. So, I was thinking about it and I was going through Soundaryalahari of Adhishankara. So, I was reading that and one more thing I came across that was bothering me for a long time was in Hindu religion, we have the concept, that after the death, our body merges with the Panchabhuta. How does it happen? So, I was thinking about it and then, as I said, I was reading this Soundaryalahari and I came across this stanza, where, Sankaracharya says how all our Chakras in human body (we have seven Chakras) how five Chakras are related to the Panchabuta and that struck me, ‘Wow’ this was what I was looking for. And then I thought that I could do the choreography out of it.
My humble offering to the aesthetic effort "Vande Vishva Vallabham", conceptulised by Nambiar SooryaVamsha Kshathriya, with a few other artists. Below is the link of the full video.https://youtu.be/o7l9lATvJG0
Posted by Pallavi Krishnan on Wednesday, 27 May 2020
The Sloka, “Mahim Muladhare Kam Api Manipure Hutavaham Sthitam Svadhisthane Hrdi Marutam Akasam Upari Mano’pi Bhrumaddhye Sakalam Api Bhitva Kulapatham,” this is a beautiful Sloka where he says how Muladhare Chakra is connected to Bhumi, how many Purais is connected to Jalam, and what is connected to Agni, like this…So, I took this and then I took several Slokas from Taittriya Upanishad as well. Then I got lot of information and materials. Normally, when I decide to do a choreography, I will talk to many scholars. I will go to many scholars. An eminent scholar in Thrissur, Mr. Sundaresan, who has now shifted to Kozhikode, helped me to get lot of materials. Now that I have ended up with so many materials, I did not know what to do with all these information glut, pertaining to Panchabuthas and Upanishad.
Then I went to Mr. CP Unnikrishnan and he helped me to arrange it and he made a script. And that was how it came out and how it was connected and how Kundalini, the concept of Kundalini, the energy, how it rises up, activates all the Chakras and how it reaches to Sahasrara, the Chakra in the shape of lotus with thousand petals, which is the ultimate enlightenment, where, he beautifully says that where Shiva and Parvaty resides. That is the abode of Shiva and Parvaty. It is so beautiful. So, when I decided to do this, I thought that if I had a group of dancers, well I can show it beautifully the unfolding of the Chakras and rising of the Kundalini and the Panchabutas. And finally what happened? he says and he places the female energy higher to male energy, the first Sloka where he says, “Shivah Shaktya Yukto Yadi Bhavati Shaktah Prabhavitum Na Chedevam Devo Na Khalu Kushalah Spanditumapi | Atah Tvam Aradhyam,” unless Parvaty joins Shiva, the latter cannot move an inch. So, that is the first Sloka. And then in the last Sloka, again he says whatever we have, we claim our own, but nothing is ours. Everything we get it from the Mother Nature, and we will give it back to the Her. So, that is the theme and I thought that it conveyed very well the audience with our excellent performance.
MM: Also about bringing in the other art forms to your productions, what prompts you to do that?
PK: As I said that I have got an experimental mind, when I did Salapanchika, that is the highlight of the feminine feelings and I brought the epic character Ahalya, who is cursed by her husband, Gautama Muni for no fault of her. She was innocent. But, still she had to go through all these hardships. My question is why? She was dormant in the form of stone for ages. She had all kinds of feminine feelings, which she could not express. She suppressed her feelings. So when the sculptor came and found this stone and created a beautiful sculpture, that is Salapanchika out of Ahalya, that is equal to Ahalya’s Moksha because the constant touch of the Shilpi, the male on her which she was longing for, that was a kind of Moksha or salvation. The sculptor leaves her because she could not express her feeling. The Shilpi made the statue of Salapanchika and left. It was beautifully written by Kavalam Narayana Pannikar. Actually, the original story was by CP Unnikrishnan, but then Kavalam Narayana Panikkar penned it beautifully and then the vocalist, late Kalamandalam Hyderali and music composer Darshan Raman in Thiruvananthapuram made the music.
So, again there is a message that why today we see lots of Ahalyas in our society. Whenever I do work on a theme, I am very particular I should have a message to be conveyed, which is relevant to the society. I just cannot do anything, so we see lot of Ahalyas today in our society. Women are always tortured, they are blamed, they are suspected, she just suppresses her feelings right? So, that is Ahalya. So, I brought Ahalya character in this way. So, there, I thought that the Shilpi character we can bring Bharatanatyam. I brought Radha-Madhavam, the legendary Kathakali Guru, Sadanam Balakrishnan Asan, where we did a fusion of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam and we did for the choreography for Konarak Festival and that was the beautiful amalgamation of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, which was beautifully done. Again, the music was beautifully done by Suryanarayanan from Palakkad. Unfortunately he passed away few months ago. Most of my choreographs, where the music composition was by Suryanarayanan. For Kunthi, I did the Karna character enacted by PT Narendran, the Bharatanatyam dancer in that style. If it suits the character, why not?
MM: I believe that an artist needs to have a keen sense of choreography to bring out the kind of works, novel works of art like even in your sense you said you would love to take up challenges and you like to experiment and all have to be done with good aesthetics which you have over the years. So, what I want to ask you next is about developing the choreographic skill. Is it something that one develops through years of experience or is it something that an artist gets naturally?
PK: It goes hand in hand because something is natural and inherent. If you are asking about aesthetics, they go hand in hand. But later I will come to your second part of your question. But, first is aesthetics. That is something which should be inherent and then over the years, you can develop it in your theme. For me, I personally try to think and do everything aesthetically. Right from the time I get up in the morning, till such time I go to bed, there are chain of events, which have a chain of aesthetics.
So, I think, it comes to me naturally. Whatever I have, even when I dress up, I will look into every detail of aesthetics, when I talk, when I think, every little thing, I do it with lot of aesthetics. Whatever inherent aesthetics I have and whatever I have developed over the years, I will try to implement in my creations. The second part of your question, well the process of choreography and how do I get to the final work. To answer that, it is something very strange to me. I read a lot. I am a very observant person. I am a keen observer. I will look into everything that is happening around me and I watch lot of films as well.
What happens is that sometimes, some ideas strikes me. It comes in my mind and then it stays. My mind tells me I have to do that. It stays in my mind and slowly it starts developing. Meanwhile, I must be doing lot of performances or solo performances, but it starts growing and developing and I will come to a point that it has to burst out. Otherwise, I will start feeling uncomfortable. It is just like delivering a child. After some time, it has to come out. The kind of pain I am having until I kick it out, and that is the point I start giving my idea or whatever I have in my mind, I will start giving shape through my choreography. That’s how it happens and it will happen continuously. Even today, I will tell you I have something in my mind and it is developing. So, it has not come to a level where I have to really deliver, may be, next year or so. When I take it out, now I really have to do it on the stage. Then I will go to a script writer and then he writes the script. It is a time consuming process. Unless and until I am satisfied with the script, I will keep on changing it.
I will keep on troubling my script writer day and night. I will tell you when I did the script of Kunthi at the last day of my recording, I changed the script. When there was only an hour left for the recording, I changed the script because something was bothering me and it was not correct, so I changed the script. When the script is done, then we will sit with the musician. I am not a person who get a ready made music and go ahead with the choreography. That is not my kind of work. So, I will sit with the musician. So far, I have done with Suryanarayanan and he is no more. He was a person who had lot of patience. He kept on singing and finally what happened was when I am not getting the feeling of whatever character I am doing, that feeling had to touch me.
That particular raga has to touch me. Then only we will select. It is a long drawn out process and I will put my contribution in everything. I will tell him, this raga has not come out well. Let us try some other suitable raga. When I did Panchabuta, to get the feeling of the Shoonyam, the emptiness, the vacuum, he took 15 ragas. Then finally, we settled with Atana. When we did the Charkra part, it was not coming out. Then, finally, when he rendered Hamsanandi, it has got the spiritual element and then I started feeling that there is something happening in me. So, that way we do the music. Before getting into the music and when I receive the script, I will do the rough sketch of my choreography. Only afterwards, I will sit with the music because I know the scenes and situation perfectly well. Then when we complete the music, we will do the final choreography with my dancers. I have excellent group of dancers, who are extremely cooperative. I have excellent team of musicians who are also very very cooperative. At the final stage, we change a lot of things. Then we will focus on other things like setting up the lights and even I look into the design of the invitation cards with great details. For me to do a traditional piece like padam or varnam, or a thillana, it takes less time because I am doing this for a long time. Though, I sit with musicians, nevertheless, I can select within a short time. It takes less time for me to select music for traditional work and much more time for the thematic choreography.
MM: Coming to your musical aspect in your repertoire, what I would like to ask you is you have done one of your discographies using Rabindra Sangeet as well as Sopanam music. Would you tell us the motivation behind doing this? How did it enhance your work?
PK: Good question indeed (smiles). To answer this question I have to talk a little bit about history. In early ’30s, when Kerala Kalamandalam and the Santiniketan, both the institutions were in growing stage, Gurudev Ravindranath Tagore was searching for different art forms to introduce in his institution, that time he traveled to Kerala and he watched Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. He liked the Kerala art forms so much and he wanted to take Mohiniyattam and introduce it in his Ashram. Actually, Santhiniketan is an Ashram. Vallathol Narayana Menon and Ravindranath Tagore had a dream to collaborate.
Menon sent Kalyani Amma to Santinikethan and she was accompanied by her Guru, Krishna Panikkar Asan. Those days, women did not travel that far. Asan was already old and they taught Mohiniyattam in Santinikethan for one year. Due to lot of constraints like weather, climatic variations, food and language, Asan fell sick and they had to come back to Kerala. Vallathol did not find a substitute to be sent to Santinikethan. That department was closed at the Gurukul.
Then Kathakali department came up in Santinikethan. After 1932, with 60 years of gap, I came from Santinikethan to Kerala Kalamandalam, connecting these two institutions. Till today, I am the sole person who is connecting these two institutions with regards to Mohiniyattam. Now, when I realised it that I am a part of history, I felt a kind of responsibility. I wanted to combine and connect these two cultural institutions, so that what I can do, I thought. Finally, I came up with an idea of seasons because Rabindranath Tagore had beautiful compositions on season and Kalidasa’s Ritusamhar I had, where the seasons were explained elaborately. Then, I had to go through the whole of Ritusamhar. I went to Mr. Rajagopalan and read the whole of Ritusamhar. Then I selected some verses from Ritusamhar, which will suit the compositions of Tagore which are already chosen. So, I had to select and once the selection part got over, then I had to set these Slokas into music because Rabindra Sangeets are already composed and we cannot change it, which are composed by Gurudev himself. So, Kavalam Naryana Panikkar did that part. He tuned those Slokas with Sopana Sangeet. Both Rabindra Sangeet and Sopana Sangeet go very well and it gelled with Mohiniyattam very well too.
Then the whole thing I presented in Mohiniyattam medium. The first session I had live. I had two sets of musicians. One set was focusing on Rabindra Sangeet and percussion, while the other set of musicians were handling Sopana Sangeet, but percussion instruments we had common for both. The dancers were Malayalees. I had hard time to make them understand all these Bengali lyrics and we presented it. After the presentation when everything was over, I got a kind of contentment that may be the dream came true because I could combine these two Institutions and its cultures and I could present and the kind of appreciation we got was phenomenal. Also, I would like to mention one beautiful thing, because, I think, those who are interested in this kind of thing, they should know that how or what Kalidasa says in his Slokas and what Ravindranath Tagore says in his Slokas both are beautiful. Kalidasa’s Slokas say that how the human emotions change in different seasons. In summer, you feel irritated because it is hot. When the monsoon starts you feel cool and then your mind will also become cool. Then you have autumn coming and it is a festive season and you will feel happy. Then you have harvest season and then Sishiram that is another dry season because it is very cold. Then, the king of seasons come, that is Vasanth. Spring is the season of love and colours. Every season, human emotions as well as minds change.
Kalidasa says that and Tagore says how the emotions of nature changes in each season through the colour. So we use a bit of colour in each season and it was an experimental work in 1997 while I was very young. I was just starting my career and I wanted to do something new and experimental. The kind of appreciation I got from the scholars and artists everywhere that actually prompted me or encouraged me to take many more challenges. I still remember I was invited to Delhi to present this item and the great critic Subudu was sitting in the audience. He gave rave reviews about my presentation and that age getting a positive review from Subuddu was great encouragement and also I was invited to perform in Toronto International Festival and I presented Rituranga. I also presented the same all over Canada. So, that was Rituranga because I wanted to bring out the root of my birth, that is West Bengal and the root of my passion, that is Kerala. I wanted a plant out of these two roots and that plant is Rituranga.
MM: Another point about music is in Mohiniyattam, we have two accepted styles of Sopana Sangeetha Padhathi and Carnatic music. So, which do you prefer or do you use both and balance out? Why?
PK: I actually like both. I cannot choose between the two because being a lineage of Kerala Kalamandalam, I definitely do their styles like varnam, padams, thillana and more. At the same time, when I was associated with Mr. Kavalalam Narayana Pannikar then through him only I came to know the richness of Kerala, the richness, the thaalas, the ragas, Kunjan Nambiar and all those things I came to know only through him. So, it was so enriching and I cannot avoid that. At the same time, I am a person who likes both and learned both. I learned Sopanam style from Bharti Madam and after Kalamandalam I learned Guru Bharati Sivaji. Later I learned from Guru Kalamandalam Sugandi Teacher. I cannot ignore that and at the same time I am a student of Leelama Teacher so that I cannot ignore that either. I cannot choose. When I do a presentation, I feel that I combine both. One or two items or one or two pieces of Sopana Sangeetham actually I feel enhances the flavour of Mohiniyattam. That is what I feel because I can give you one example. There is a very famous Ganapathi Sthuti, composed by Kavalam Narayana Panikar in a very traditional Sopana Raga. Now, everyone is using it. There are so many dancers who start with this Ganapati Sthuthi. It is actually a Sopanam style of recital. I see it as very positive that people are now accepting both and conterversies have come down. I do both and I do one or two items in Sopanam style. I love it.
MM: Coming to another part of something interesting that you do in your performances is that the usage of lighting. I ask this in the context of Mohiniyattam specifically to you because not many dancers have explored that aspect of lighting. It is in your generation of dancers that we see several of you using lighting. I know that you have a light technician and you work with him. Do you direct him or is it a combined effort by both of you? Would you please let us know a little bit of that as well?
PK: I personally feel that light, good music or a sound system and a good light system is very important for a dance performance. When you perform, you first check whether you have a good sound system, right? Whether the mike is working properly, in the sound, whether there is any echo. For me, good lighting and good sound system, both are equal. I pay equal importance to both. But, I am not a fan of too much of colour play. Using too much of colour in light will divert the attention of the audience from the main theme and what is going on. I always try to keep a balance in terms of lighting. I know something about lighting as I am working for so many years. When you go abroad, you have to send your light design in advance. You cannot go for a professional programme without having a light chart. You have to send it in advance. Classical dance arena has become so advanced. It is both very common in Kerala. But if you just cross border, you go to Chennai, you go to Bangalore, Delhi or Kolkata, you will see professional solo dancers using proper lighting techniques. Again I am saying that I am not a fan of colours and when it is required, only then we can use. When I do a choreography, I sit with my light technician and light designer. I have a very good light designer. I sit with him and then we discuss and decide. In my choreography, a light designer is as important as a musician and as a dancer because, my designer comes frequently or almost everyday to see the choreography. Then only he can execute light properly on the stage. So, it is very important for me and I think it should be a must to have proper light.
I know it is a bit expensive for young dancers. It is difficult, but it is a prerequisite. When I organise a festival, or when we go to Chennai for festivals, lights are there. We don’t have to take lights from here. Even light technicians are there. They are highly professional light technicians. Once they see the choreography, they can do magic on the stage. Like that when I organise festivals, when I invite dancers from outside, I arrange the light. For three days I have all the lights. I have my light technician and my own designer who is excellent and an expert. He sees the choreography once in the morning and in the evening and he does magic. It all depends on your experience.
MM: How do you think is the most adequate or best kind of lighting set up for a traditional Mohiniyatam kachery?
PK: I don’t want flood lights, two lights coming from the sides and you sweat like anything. You also feel the heat. Power lights are good and if you have few back lights they enhance your figure. Side lights makes your face, features and your figure sharp. Front lights, that we mostly have, makes your figure flat. As the Mohiniyattam artists are wearing white costumes, everything becomes flat.
MM: To bring about the practice, do you think we need to educate our organisers and insist on having lights on the strategic positions on the stage?
PK: Yes of course, you should. Sometimes. But in Kerala, they are not used to. The organisers would start cribbing that these lights are tad bit expensive. But, you should know how to make your performance nice with minimum lights as well. We can plan in an aesthetic way that we can have few lights from behind the performers, few lights from the sides and lesser lights from the front. Your face should be visible. In Mohiniyattam performance, your face is very important. You should be visible, at the same time you should not look flat either. If you have a little bit of sense of lighting, I think, you can suggest the organiser that you don’t want too much of lights. You need only minimum lights. I think if the performers talk to the light technicians and designers, they will listen to you with open hearts because they all want that. Here in Kerala, dancers should learn how to use light.
MM: Given your long career, how would you personally mark your contributions in Mohiniyattam. As you have given insight on your group choreographs, nevertheless, could you throw light on your solo performances?
PK: Art is immortal. Art critics, arts historians and the next generation artists, they should decide, they should speak about my contribution. I have done something which touched you right? That motivated you and that is why you have invited me for a talk. When I look back, when I came to Kerala and till today, my journey was not easy, but definitely exciting. When I look back, when I see the amount of works I have done, and the kind of reviews I got from critics from all over the world, and my students, they are following my footsteps by their performance and creations. That gives me a kind of contentment and then only I realise that I might have done something really remarkable. That is why all these things are happening.
If you talk about my solo choreographs, I have done repertoires like chollukettus and padams. I have done several Swati Thirunal padams and also padams of Poet Irayamman Thampi. In addition to these, I have done thillanas and Ashtapathis because I got senior fellowship and my subject was Ashtapathi. So, I did lot of Ashtapathis, sthuthis and all those. On the one hand I did all these. I kept on doing those and I am still doing these items. On the other hand I did thematic choreographs.
If I talk about my choreography, mostly they are women centric. It portrays the feelings and emotions of women. I have already talked about Rituranga and my abstract choreography Panchabutha. They also start with female energy (Parvaty). Then the character of Ahalya, again I portrayed her feelings in Salapanchika. Pingala is a solo performance with a unique theme. It sends out a message that if we feel that we can conquer the world through our external beauty you cannot because our external beauty is ephemeral. It will vanish within no time. Today you are beautiful. Tomorrow it is all gone. But, what stays is the beauty of your mind, your inner beauty and when you realise it your inner beauty is more important than your physical beauty, only then you will succeed.
Urvashi I did on Kalidasa’s work, Vikramorvasheeyam. I took the character of Urvashi because again the message is, if you are suspicious, that would push you to pathetic situation. What happened to Urvashi? She came back to a normal form. That was because of her suspicion. Then comes Sita. Chithavashtayaya Sita authored by Kumaran Asan. There also Sita is a character where she questions about her identity. Am I the one who is responsible for for all these misfortunes of my husband and his family? Am I the one? She protests silently. The questions she raise is very much relevant at the contemporaneous times and women and we have to really rise up to that level that you too raise questions about your identity.
And then you have to start questioning. I have also done Sita in varnam format. I did Kunthi solo choreography and that also sends subtle message that the pain and agony of unwed mothers. Kunthi, all through her life, she had to go through that pain because she had to abandon her son Karna fearing social stigma. Today also same thing is happening. You can see lots of Kunthis, unwed mothers abandoning their children. They cannot keep those children with them or accept them. There are lot of Kunthis in our society. They too are going through the same pain and agonies Kunthi had undergone. Then, Kunthi was born. All these solo choreographs were women centric and I love to do that, because they have some strong messages in them. So these are my contributions.
I teach students Moyiniyattam through my institution, Lasya Institute of Mohiniyattam in Thrissur, Kerala. Teaching to me is not just teaching an item to my students. Teaching to me is motivating the students. In our class, when I teach, I talk a lot about my experience. Along with teaching, when I share my experiences and motivate them and that also matters. A teacher’s job is not only teaching items, but also it is the job of a teacher to motivate students. I think I am doing that job pretty well. I have lot of students not only in Kerala but through Skype I have students all over the world. When I see their eagerness to learn from me, that is giving me a certain kind of satisfaction. It feels reassuring that may be I am a good teacher and that is the reason they wanted to learn from me.
MM: The term Lasya is used by all the Mohiniyattam performing artists. I think everybody has their own notion of Lasya and Lasya comes out differently in every dancer. So, what is your perception of Lasya and how does it manifest for you?
PK: The word Lasya comes from the root Las and Sya. Las is to play or to frolic. According to me, Las to move happily and gracefully. Lasya is something which is a dance of an actor. It is just not moving randomly. We move with a purpose. Movement should enhance the attraction between a man and that is Las. According to Natya Shasthra, Bharata Muni also says the same thing, Lasa or Lasana which also implies the attraction between a man and a woman. If you see Nandikeshavara’s Abhinaya Darpana, the Lasya is defined as the gentle dance of Goddess Parvaty which expresses happiness and the grace. If you see what Abhinavagupta is saying, Lasya is again Kreeda something like a sportive act. So, here, he connects the mind. Here you have a feeling for someone and that is Lasya. So, all these are literal meaning. Everywhere there is a common point where a man and a woman are attracted. I think it has got some connection with the Abhinaya or Rasa Bhava. But to me, Lasya is something graceful, which should come from within. If you have a beautiful mind, if you have a graceful mind, it will reflect on your dance movements. Whatever you do, it is not only dance, if you have a graceful mind, the Lasya is everything. For me, the grace comes from your heart, your mind and from your within and it reflects in your dance and all kinds of activities.