Mohiniyattam does not have a broad canvas as that of Kathakali or Koodiyattam and hence the four fold concept of acting, elaborately dealt with in ‘Natyasastra’ of sage Bharatha- the ancient Indian dramaturgy, is neither detailed nor comprehensive in its applications. Natyasastra has extensively dealt with all the features of drama, dance and music. It has classified the style of composition the art forms into four Vrithis - Bharati (the verbal), Sattvati (the grand), Arabhati (the energetic) and Kaisiki (the graceful). Kaisikivrithi is nothing but Lasya and Mohiniyattam falls under this category. Abhinaya means conduct or represent on stage. The major components of dance and drama as enunciated in Natyasastra are the fourfold concept of Abhinaya - Angika, Vachika, Satwika and Aharya, and the two Dharmis, ie, Natyadharmi and Lokadharmi. Abhinaya simply means the way of acting. The word 'abhi' means near or towards, and 'ni' (nay) means conduct. The term abhinaya is defined as "an act of conducting towards or near". The act of conduct is towards the audience, and the thing to be conducted may be an idea or a subject. Abhinaya is the primary means of communication of the performer.
The performer evokes aesthetic experiences, transforms those ideas and develops consciousness among the audience by means of her abhinaya. The four modes of representing an idea or a subject, in front of the spectators are ‘Angika’ – the body movements, ‘Vachika’ – the words spoken, ‘Aharya’ – the make up and costumes and ‘Satwika – by evoking rasas. Dharmi is the mode of presentation. Lokadharmi is the realistic mode of presentation of the natural behavior of the people as represented on the stage in dance and drama, whereas Natyadharmi is the stylised mode of presentation in dance.
Angikaabhinaya is all about the physical activities and movements of the body represented by gestures and postures. Dance lays more emphasis on angikaabhinaya. Sage Bharata has divided the limbs of the body in to two - the ‘angas’ and the ‘upangas’ or major limbs and minor limbs. In Natyasatra various movements of ‘angas’ called ‘angabhedas’ are classified as follows;
Charis are the basic movements of the feet. Karana is one predestined position of the entire body connected by a chari. Angahara is a combination of different Karanas. In all dance patterns 'Karana' is the smallest basic unit. Mandala is a sequence of movements founded on the combination of different Charis.
Angikabhinaya in Mohiniyattam is mainly confined to various kinds of ‘adavus’ classified as Thaganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram, by Smt. Kalamandalam Kakyanikkutty Amma, one of the chief exponents of this art form. Its body postures are fixed in five mandalams – Samam (standing), Kal (quarter compressed), Ara (half compressed), Mukkal (threequarter compressed) and Muzhu (fully compressed) mandalams. The five basic gaits are that of frog, swan, peacock, rooster and snake known as Mandookapada, Hamsapada, Mayoorapada, Kukkudapada and Nagabandham. The entire movements in Mohiniyattam are soft and graceful, circular or semi-circular or wavelike.
Mudras are codified finger formations or hand poses having both symbolic and realistic meaning and effectively substitutes spoken language. Stylized gesture language carries the potentialities to become a universal medium of communication and expression. Gesticulation is universal and spoken words without gesticulation are always imperfect. The fundamental hand poses are, Pathakam, Mudrakhyam, Katakam, Mushti, Karthariemukham, Sukathundam, Kapittham, Hamsapaksham, Sikharam, Hamsasyam, Anjali, Ardhachandram, Mukuram, Bhramaram, Soocheemukham, Pallavam, Thripathakam, Mrigaseersham, Sarpasirasu, Vardhamanakam, Araalam, Oornanabham, Mukulam and Katakaamukham.
Vachikabhinaya in Mohiniyattam is the background music used to support the performance. The vocalists sing the lyrics repeatedly to create the mood in appropriate ragas until the entire theme is expressed by the performer.
It was poet Vallathol who went out in search of the surviving practitioners of this dance tradition in the early decades of the 20th century when he established Kerala Kalamandalam. He could locate Orikkaledath Kalyani Amma and Korattikkara Krishna Panickar as the remaining Gurus of a rich heritage. They were but not associated with the actual stage performance of Mohiniyattam, for it had for many years lost its social recognition. The ban of dasiyattam in south India by the British Government by the close of the 19th century had ‘silenced’ the existing performers.
It was against the above background Vallathol persuaded the surviving Gurus to join Kalamandalam and impart training in this dance form to young aspirants. The items known to them and their immediate successor, Thottasserry Chinnammu Amma, were not even a handful. They knew a Cholkettu, the invocational item, a Jathiswaram, a Telugu Varnam and one or two Padams of Swathy Thirunal. The dearth of items complemented by a poverty of literature prompted Vallathol and the Gurus refurbish the structure and content of Mohiniyattam. The lyrics of Maharaja Swathy Thirunal and Irayimman Thampi (19th century) laden with neo-classical metaphors and images were adopted to enrich the literary text of Mohiniyattam. A host of Varnams, Padavarnams, Padams and Keerthanams since then found space in its literary content. ‘Manasime parithapam’, ‘Sumasayaka’, ‘Tharuni! Najan’, ‘Panimathimukhi!’, ‘Karunacheyvan’, the lullaby, ‘omanathinkalkitavo!’ and a number of other now popular items were choreographed at Kalamandalam in the 1950’s.
From 1960’s onwards, talented young dancers who graduated from Kalamandalam began enriching the repertoire of Mohiniyattam by choosing lyrics from the different sources of Malayalam and Sanskrit literature. While Kalyanikutty Amma, the doyenne in the field, had contributed to the Mohiniyattam literature, through her own literary compositions, dancers like Kshemavathy choreographed poetic pieces like ‘saundaryalahari’ of Sree Sankaracharya. Dr. Kanak Rele and Ms. Bharati Shivaji came up with the lesser known Varnams and Padams of Swathy Thirunal and others to enrich the literary and visual content of Mohiniyaattam. The dancers of the day are experimenting even contemporary lyrics in it. In short, the literature of Mohiniyaattam unlike that of similar other performing arts, has proved to be dynamic in its functional network.
Aharyabhinaya in Mohiniyattam deals with its costumes, ornaments and makeup. In Mohiniyattam the dancer wears a nine yard white Sari with a pleated golden border, almost like a skirt than a Sari and a matching blouse with a covering piece over it to cover the body. A small fan like piece is worn just below the waist over the skirt. Eyes and eye-brows are blackened, lips are reddened and the palms and the edges of the feet are coloured with chempanchi or Mayilanji (a paste made of leaves from the plants by the same name). Most of the performers gather their hair to the left side of the head and tied in to a bun just above the temple. It is then decorated with jasmine flowers. Cheeks are well powdered and a rounded red mark (bindi) is put on the forehead. Ornaments used are earrings-like Kadukkan, Kodakadukkan and Thoda; metal - a chain attached to the ear rings; Kaichuttipathakkam – a necklace with a pendent; Mookkuthi - nose ring; Kaasumala - a long necklace; short necklaces like poothali, Illakkathali, Nagapadathali, Mullamottumala etc; bangles like Kadakam, Valayam; waist belts like Udyanam, Ellas and Kingini; rings on fingers and anklets of different designs. Besides, Nettichutti and Surya Chandra are also used by some dancers. Nettichutti (golden chain) is worn at the hairline to divide the forehead. On the either sides of the Netichutti, Surya is worn in the right side and Chandra on the left side, which is made of red stones.
In Mohiniyattam two hairstyles have been in vogue. They are Kakapaksham and Nagalambam. In Nagalambam, upper part of the hair resembles the hood of a serpent. A part of the hair is gathered and tied up in to a bun just behind the head and decorated with jasmine flowers. The rest of the hair is plaited down and a jasmine garland curls around it like a snake. In Kakapaksham upper part of the hair is the same as that of Nagalambam but the rest of the hair is loosened without plaiting. But in Kalamandalam the hair style adopted by the Mohiniyattam performers is to gather their hair to the left side of the head and tie it into a bun. When it is adorned with jasmine flowers the dancer looks different from the dancers in the make-up and costumes of Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi.
Sathwikaabhinaya in Mohiniyattam depicts the sentiments by creating Rasas through expressions or Bhavas. Actually this is the technique of creating moods among the spectators. The major moods conveyed through this art form are that of Bhakthi (devotion) and Shringara (love). Therefore the expressions are classified as Sthayibhavas (basic expressions) and Sancharibhavas (other expressions). The bhavas or expressions of the lyrics are expressed through satvikaabhinaya. In Mohiniyattam the vocalist sings each line of the Varnam or Padam repeatedly. The dancer then embellishes her dancing and acting through the various hand gestures and appropriate facial expressions.
Satvikabhinaya is best expressed by means of Mukhaabhinaya, especially through Nayanabhinaya. The overall rasa to be evoked is sringara and rati is its sthayibhava (basic-expression). According to Vaishnava - Alamkarika, bhakti bhava is central to Mohiniyattam. It is the angikaabhinaya that supports satwikaabhinaya very much, as it involves the angas, upangas and pratyangas, for the expression of different bhavas. Sringara is the key-emotion (rasa) in classical dances and especially in Mohiniyattam as it springs out from the basic sentiment of love. ‘Sringara’ is the queen of sentiments in the nrithya items of Mohiniyattam especially the varnams and the padams. Sringara is divided into sambhoga sringara and vipralambha sringara, ie; love in union and love in separation respectively. In Mohiniyattam, the ashtanayikas detailed in the Natyasastra has enough scope for expressions. The eight different moods of the Nayika (herione) in relation to her Nayaka (hero) offer considerable space to the Mohiniyattam dancers to present their histrionic skills. In this context, the kaisikivrithi (sringara bhavas especially of women) unfolds the myraid hues of sringara involving sweet-anger, sorrow, shyness, petty skirmishes, envy, naivety, spite and so on. In fine, the satwikaabhinaya in Mohiniyattam is a big challenge to the dancers. Modern Mohiniyattam dancers have brought in new themes offering enough range for the expression of the navarasas, thereby reinterpreting the traditional definition of this lasya heritage.
‘Geetha Govindam’ written by poet Jayadeva in 12th Century A.D, popularly known as ‘Ashtapadi’ depicting the eternal love between Radha and Lord Krishna is an excellent piece of literature expressing the moods of love and devotion akin to Mohiniyattam. The concept of ashtanaikas has been well established in this classic Sanskrit work. Evoking the emotions and sensations brought in by the beautiful lyrics of Ashtapadi into the lasya charm of Mohiniyattam, Smt. Sunitha M Nair, a post graduate in Mohiniyattam from Sree Sankaracharya Sanskrit University, Kalady in Ernakulam District has choreographed ‘Ashtapadeelayalasyam’ in 2005. Presently working as a lecturer there in Mohiniyattam, she is doing her research to reincarnate the hand gestures elaborated in Balaramabharatham, another authoritative Sanskrit text in the subject, at Kearala Kalamandalam Deemed University.
The verses (Sahithyam), the notes (Swarams) and the vaytharis (rhythmic syllables) recited by the Nattuvan are also included in the vachika aspect of Mohiniyattam. These vaytharis are closely associated with the rhythm (Thalam) or time beat of performing arts of Kerala. The dance items in Mohiniyattam like Cholkkettu and Thillana have the vaytharis as its vachika. For those belong to the Varnam, Jatiswaram, Tillana include some vachika elements like systematised and stylised Swara passages. In Cholkkettu, most of the basic movements are presented according to different bunches of syllables. It has a concluding portion in salutation to Lord Shiva, the Lord of Dance. Jathiswaram is well tuned to a particular ‘Rarga’ and the movements of artists are also in tune with its Swarams and syllables. Thillana also in tune with the Swaras and syllables of a particular raga with a small Sahithya portion and all these items are considered to be pure dance items. There is no scope for much expression (Bhavam) in them. Varnam means clour. Through this item the vivid colours of human minds are being expressed. It is an item which gives prominence to all the three basiv elements of Indian Classical Performing Arts, namely Bhavam (expression) Ragam (music) and Thalam (rhythm). This item will normally present the sentiments of deserted nayika (heroine) who is anxiously waiting for the arrival of her beloved one. The heroes in most of the Varnams are Lord Krishna or Vishnu in the form of Padmanabha. Hence it will create a blended mood of Sringara and Bhakthi – love and devotion. Padams are excellent pieces of expression oriented dance items, through which the efflux of emotions creates the ecstasy of vivid moods like, sringaram, veeram, karunam, roudram, hasyam, bhayanakam, beebhalsam, adbhutham and santham. Slokams are in praise of a God or Godess. Its prominent sentiment is Bhakthi or devotion. The scope of abhinaya is best realized through this item. It was Kalamandalam Kalyanikkuttiyamma who formulated Saptham as the narration of a full story through lasya ntithya style. Her own composition ‘Sree Rama Saptham’ is the depiction of the entire story of the great epic ‘Ramayanam’.