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Mohiniyattam An Indian Dance Tradition (A Language of Feminine Desire)

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Item Code: NAP453
Author: Mythili Maratt Anoop
Publisher: Shubhi Publications, Gurgaon
Language: English
Edition: 2022
ISBN: 9788182904347
Pages: 294 (12 color Illustrations & 15 Pages B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 9.50 X 6.50 inch
Weight 700 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

The symbolic dimension has a ubiquitous presence in our lives, and is a domain where beliefs, knowledge and world-views that are essential to the creation and sustenance of a culture are constructed, reinforced and challenged. Dance, like language, is a form of symbolic behaviour specific to the human species and has a communicative value as it enables participation in a common culture and the transmission of certain kinds of information. As is embodied signifying, practice dance a fitting subject for 'semiotic analysis. But in discussing the 'semiotics of dance, there is a need to critically engage with the linguistic metaphor. The linguistic analogy helps us to arrive at the systemic features of dance, but the defining ephemerality of dance as an event that unfolds through particular bodies in particular contexts eludes approaches that focus on systemic features. Being a performance that is simultaneously the concretization of a choreography, and a spontaneous expression dance is marked by a textuality and a performativity: it is simultaneously governed by convention an driven by instinct.

The dance of Mohiniyattam, popularly understood as the dacne of the enchantress, has been designated as the female classical dance form of kerala in South India. It has achieved its present form primarily at the Kerala Kalamandala, founded by the poet and nationalist, vallathol Narayana Menon in the early twentieth century. Mohiniyattam predominantly constructs and stages a certain kind of ferminity, which is divorced from the identities of modern day practitioners. Further, the dance also becomes a site where distinct are articulated of Indian culture and selfhood are articulated. Mohiniyattam has not simply been revived or reconstructed; rather it has been revived or reconstructed; rather it has been contructed within a clasictist framework by the practitioner and other promoters as a variant of the classical Indian dances that reinforces certain mythical conceptions of the region. Mohiniyattam today is a corpus of distinct choreographies, distinct notions of the code, and diverse historical narratives, on account of the dance being subject to several processes of codification and canonization. This study examines the constructed nature of the code of mohiniyattam, rather than dealing with the notion of authenticity, enabling the appreciation of multiple and individualistic interpretations, which is essential for keeping the tradition alive.

About The Author

Dr. Mythili Maratt Anoop is a practitioner of classical Indian dance and works as Guest faculty in Humanities at the University of Hyderabad. She has also initiated an institute, 'Moham' to promote Mohiniyattam in Hyderabad. She has wide performing experience and has received recognitions and positive reviews for her performances. Her edited volume of papers, Scripting Dance in Contemporary India (2016). has been published by Lexington Books (Maryland). Her other papers, include, "Creativity and the Code: Training in Mohiniattam'', published in Theatre Dance and Performances Training ( A Taylor & Francis publication) and Natya, Rasa and Abhinaya as Semiotic Principles in Classical Indian dance" in Semiotic, published by Mouton de Gruyter. She received her PhD from IIT Bombay in the Performative Semiotics of Mohiniattam in 2011.


The content of this book was conceived and written ten years ago, when I was a research student IIT Bombay. This book reflects the work I did then: a slice of my own trajectory in pursuing dance studies. As I started reading in the area of Indian dance scholarship, I was aware of the dominant trend of Sanskrit-text-based scholarship in the field. With a background in Literature and Communication studies, and with the modern and post-modern theories of art that IITB armed me with, I was persuaded to approach the dance I pursued in that light. I believe, there is something to be gained by using a novel approach, and the HSS Department of IIT Bombay gave me the right milieu, free from the shackles of traditionalist thinking, to pursue that.

Mohiniyattam as a dance form has grown and flourished. With so many practitioners in the form located across the globe, it is ironical that dancers still claim to 'preserve' and 'promote' a 'dying' art. With very little funding and support for a majority of practitioners, they still need to be appreciated for the efforts they make to expand the repertoire. The scholarly and critical interest in the form is also growing. The work of Justine Lemos on the history of the form' is a significant contribution. There are also dancers working on several practice-based areas of research. In the context of the writings available today on Mohinyattam, this book attempts to approach the dance as a `language', one that creates the space for the expression of 'feminine' desires. I am aware that there will be several voices, eager to dismiss this work as full of modern or Western theory (as was my experience at a conference, where, a senior dance critic wrote hurriedly in the fashion of a dance review that too many Western scholars were quoted in my work! I realized then, that Western scholar' is a bad word in Indian Dance scholarship). Well, we live in modern times, and our classical dances are no more rituals or sacred offerings to the divine. Modern theories, if anything, help us to approach classical dances as instances of human behaviour at par with other kinds of body language.

been destined to have great gurus. A series of fortuitous incidents have led me to join IIT Bombay and work under Prof. Milind Malshe, just as a another set of events have led me to accomplished mobiniattain gurus. I would like to think of it as some divine design, with the full knowledge that it is perhaps nothing more than an instance of the story-spinning/ narrativizing trait typical of the human species. And,. again, recognizing this does not rule out the possibility of divine designs.

Prof. Malshe has not only been pivotal to my thesis-writing, but he has also changed my life as only a truly great teacher can. He has changed the way I read, the way I think, and the way I write. When I joined IIT, I had little more than an ambition to pursue doctoral research, and a strong interest in dance. It is Prof. Malshe's confidence and enterprise that has motivated me to embark on this less travelled road, stick to it and pursue it to the end, despite by natural disposition for wanton wanderings. He has been extremely patient in correcting and guiding me and I owe this thesis, first and foremost, to him.

It was my mother's initiative that took me as a six year old to Kalamandalam Kshemavathy's dance school in Thrissur. From then to now, I have learnt from several teachers: Smt, Maidhili, Smt Smitha in Thrissur, better known names such as Smt. Gopika Varma, Kalamandalam Radhika, Kalamandalam Leelamma for short durations, Bharathi Shivaji in a workshop and Nalanda Dance Research Centre and Sunanda Nair's institute in Mumbai. My gurus' pursuit of dance has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and has given me the will to find time to dance even in the most adverse circumstances. My thanks are due also to the faculty at the HSS department, especially Prof. Sarma, Prof. Kulkalni and Prof. Sharmila for their guidance at various stages. Prof. Sarma and Prof. Kulkarni have provided valuable comments and suggestions that have shaped my work.

I registered for the PhD programme at IIT two days after my wedding. My husband, Anoop, has made numerous sacrifices, and demonstrated extreme levels of patience against my impatience and tantrums in the course of writing the thesis which led to this book. My daughter, Avanthika arrived less than a year into the writing of this thesis, and she has provided me with a great many challenges, delights, and distractions. She has accompanied me on my numerous travels for the sake of my work since infancy, and stayed in the company of ayahs, some of whom, she was not very fond of. A major part of this work was completed during my mother's brief visits, when she took complete charge of my household and baby. My thanks are due to my aunt, Sunita Maratt, for throwing her doors open to me whenever, I had to stay in Bombay and for things too numerous to mention.

I am also grateful to my peers at IIT Bombay, Arnapurna Rath and Pragyan Rath for their timely suggestions and comments. Lastly, my thanks are due to Mr. Sanjay Arya, who re-kindled in me the hope of getting my book published, after a series of failed and stalled attempts, and for actually seeing it through!


1.1 The Instinct to 'Express': The Darwinian Context

Communication is no more seen as the unique privilege of humans, or even animals. David Attenborough begins his fascinating account of the Private Life of Plants with the statements, "Plants can see. They can count and communicate with one another"." Nevertheless, humans are the only species that engage in the prolific use of symbols for communication, many a time, not for the direct satisfaction of any specific biological or survival need. The creation and use of symbols appear to be a uniquely human trait, and one that is manifested in a mind-boggling diversity.

Language and dance are two universal instances of symbolic behaviour unique to the human species. Language is more pervasive when compared to dance, which is performed in 'special' contexts. However, even dance uses the language of gesture, a system acquired by human infants even before they acquire language and is the primary means of communication for people with language disabilities.' Communication through symbolic systems appears to be not merely a basic human instinct, but also a compulsive need. Through the creation and use of symbols and narratives built up of symbols. Humans comprehend and make coherent sense of the world, and through the transmission of these narratives', they lay their anchor down for at least a temporary sense of permanence. The proposition is best expressed by the American philosopher, Susanne Langer:

The instinct to dance that human beings possess is perhaps best evidenced in the existence of highly evolved forms of dancing in all societies whether, technologically advanced or 'primitive'. The existence of multiple forms of dancing across cultures, and the existence of different forms within a particular culture show that dance serves particular functions within societies, and cannot be seen in isolation from the contexts of performance. In many cultures, dance is a part of celebration, and participation in dance heightens the merriment, creates a fellow-feeling and releases tension. It is also often accompanied by feasting. Charles Darwin's vivid description of the dance of two tribes he witnesses in Tasmania, paints a visual synecdoche of 'tribal life':

As soon as all was ready, large fires were kept blazing, round which the women and children were collected as spectators; the Cockatoo and King George's men formed two distinct parties, and generally danced in answer to each other. The dancing consisted in their running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space, and stamping the ground with great force as they marched together. Their heavy footsteps were accompanied by a kind of grunt, by beating their clubs and spears together, and by various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms and wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude, barbarous scene, and to our ideas, without any sort of meaning; but we observed that the black women and children watched it with the greatest pleasure. Perhaps these dances originally represented actions such as wars and victories; there was one called the Emu dance, in which each man extended his arm in a bent manner, like the neck of that bird. In another dance, one man imitated the movements of a kangaroo grazing in the woods, whilst a second crawled up, and pretended to spear him. When both tribes mingled in the dance, the ground trembled with the heaviness of their steps, and the air resounded with their wild cries. Everyone appeared in high spirits, and the group of nearly naked figures, viewed by the light of the blazing fires, all moving in hideous harmony, formed a perfect display of a festival amongst the lowest barbarians.

In Darwin's description above, the audio-visual bombardment in its `primitive' form unaided by sophisticated lighting or audio technology, and accompanied by olfactory and gustatory sensations provide 'pleasure', `harmony', 'high spirits', 'ease', and 'delight'. The rhythm in dance is also a near universal principle that enables a fulfilling experience for the dancers and the spectators alike. All human beings instinctively respond to rhythm and prolonged exposure to rhythm enables the consciousness to enter altered states. Another universal that comes through, is the 'symbolization' of actions in dance, which Darwin hints through his surmise that, some of these dances `originally represented' wars or victories, or hunting. In a context of festivity, the absent situations of war, and the hunt are being recalled, or imaginatively presented. At the same time, Darwin's disillusionment and castigation of the tribe and their dance as 'low' and 'barbarous', and his inability to comprehend the meaning points to the need for acculturation to fit into a community, watch and dance their dance to partake in the common experience.

While human beings have a basic instinct to appreciate and indulge in rhythmic and patterned movement, the forms of these movements whose meanings are also inextricably bound with their contexts of performance are a product of cultural evolution. Forms of dance can be as varied as the diversity of languages across the globe. That leads us to a fundamental problem, which is crucial in approaching dance as a language. Dance uses and stylizes gestures of the body, many of which, such as the expression of emotions, have universal significance. The closest vocal counterpart would be non-linguistic, vocal gestures, such as a cry of pain, or a sigh of relief, or even the tonal variations in speech that have the ability to suggest the affective dimension. The question that emerges is whether dance, in which the affective dimension becomes very central, has a universal significance.

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