Sopana Sangeetham or Carnatic music? Dancers insist that it needs to be a mix of each

The true id of Mohiniyattam previous to its resurrection at Kerala Kalamandalam by its founder, poet-laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, has been a subject of countless debates and discussions, most of it centred across the dance type’s stylistic options and repertoire. But its music, each vocal and instrumental, has by no means bought the eye it deserved. It was Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, poet, playwright and famend theatre director, who spoke up in opposition to the musical practices prevalent in Mohiniyattam from the times of Maharaja Swati Tirunal, mentioning what he referred to as the obvious discrepancies between the actions and the music.

Kavalam’s criticism was, for probably the most half, directed in direction of the musical system of Mohiniyattam adopted at Kalamandalam. Broadly based mostly on the classical music format, the choreography of all of the items on this lasya dance custom corresponds to the ragas, talas and tempos of Carnatic music.

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar

For and in opposition to

Says Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, a flagbearer of the Kalamandalam School of Mohiniyattam, “I am perfectly at ease with the adavus learnt at Kalamandalam; they are in harmony with the Carnatic system prescribed for Mohiniyattam by the then maestros. Since I am conversant with that system, I have never been inclined to effect any substantial changes to it in my own choreographies. I have danced ‘Thathaari’ and ‘Jeeva’, the two distinctive pieces by Kavalam set to the Sopana style of music — the ragas and talas he suggests are best suited to padams.”

According to well-known dancer Neena Prasad, “If Mohiniyattam is to not be branded as a regional dance type, its music needs to be systematised and numerous. The construction of Carnatic music fulfills these twin aims. When it involves the varnam in Mohiniyattam, the framework of Carnatic music assures sufficient area for the vocalist to improvise within the first half, whereas within the latter half, he/she will shut in on the nayikabhavas.

Changanassery Madhavan Namboodiri, who has been the singer for Neena’s performances for a few years, doesn’t assume it inappropriate to decide on Carnatic music for Mohiniyattam. “The vocal music for Kathakali and Bharatanatyam is directly influenced by Carnatic music. So why can’t it be used for Mohiniyattam as well? Of course, the vocalist has to exercise prudence in selecting the ragas and tempos, and applying the brigas. The niraval should not disregard the meaning of the lyrics,” she says.

When Kavalam argued in favour of Sopana Sangeetham (sung historically in temples), native Mohiniyattam dancers didn’t heed his suggestion. However, two dancers from exterior the State, Bharati Shivaji and Kanak Rele, supported him unreservedly.

“It was Kavalam who introduced me to the music of Njeralath Rama Poduval,” says Bharati. “I was instantly carried away by his singing of the Ashtapadi, ‘Chandanacharchitha’, in raga Pantuvarali. There was something unique about it. Later, I heard Janardanan Nedungadi sing various Ashtapadis at the Guruvayur temple. I thought that the undulating gamakas of Sopana Sangeetham were most apposite to my aesthetic vision and presentation of Mohiniyattam.”

Bhava-filled rendition

Gireesan, who graduated in Kathakali vocal music from Kalamandalam, has been singing for Kanak Rele’s Mohiniyattam performances. “The intensive training in vocal music has helped me sing in line with the principles of Bhavasangeetham (expressional music) propounded by Kavalam sir. I found the vaythaaris (vocal rendition of the syllables in rhythmic patterns) of the Kerala percussion, such as chenda, maddalam and edakka, that he had interpolated into his compositions, to be very much in harmony with the gamakas. He insisted on avoiding the brigas and fast tempos in Mohiniyattam compositions. His explanation of the meaning of the lyrics in relation to the bhavas has enriched my knowledge of our musical heritage.”

Methil Devika, a well-known Mohiniyattam dancer, says {that a} mix of Carnatic music and the ‘deshi’ custom of Sopana Sangeetham has helped her recitals retain an indigenous perfume. “For almost all the items I perform, except the Varnam, I use the Sopana style of music and Kerala’s percussion instruments such as maddalam, edakka and mizhavu. The dancer’s discretion is what matters here. A piece choreographed in 16 beats could be stretched to 32 beats, similar to the execution of a vilambakaala padam (slow tempo padam) in Kathakali. Dikshitar’s Navavarana kritis do not call for any alterations in the raga-tala structure. I have often felt that Mohiniyattam’s stature cannot be raised simply by blindly resorting to ‘deshi’ practices in music,” says Devika.

Though these numerous approaches might have lent color to the dance type’s music, Mohiniyattam artistes nonetheless appear to be in a quandary about which model to decide on. Those who go for Carnatic music are criticised by purists, whereas dancers utilizing Sopana Sangeetham must consider methods to save lots of their choreographies from turning into tedious due to the repetition of musical phrases, talas, vaythaaris and tempos.


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