The origin and development of Mohiniyattam are shrouded in mystery. Though there have been legends and folklore no definite ideas are as yet available from a historian’s point of view. Some hold that it was as ancient as Chilappathikaram and Manimekala, well-known Tamil classics; a few think that it was evolved by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in the nineteenth century.


            Mohiniyattam, undoubtedly, has certain similarities and common features with Bharatanatyam. This has led some scholars to believe that Mohiniyattam was evolved from Bharatanatyam but then the antiquity of Bharatanatyam itself has been questioned by several scholars. What we see as Bharatanatyam today is a well-organised chain of lovely items commencing with pure dance and proceeding according to an enchanting system to combine it with Abhinaya, thus reaching the climax of pure dance and Abhinaya. It is well known that the choreography of Bharatanatyam as we see it today was done by the famous Thanjavur Trio: Ponniah, Chinnaiah and Shivanandam. It was they who christened it Bharatanatyam. It was they who thus took Dasiattam out of its social stigma and gave it a new name and elegant showmanship.


            There is no doubt that Dasiattam existed in South India earlier than the seventh century. It is possible that it existed even before Christ. The really reliable evidence of its existence in a highly developed form is however found only in the Chilappathikaram, the famous Tamil epic. There are two views on the date of this epic. The latest of the two dates is placed somewhere in the seventh century. Hence the assertion that Dasiattam existed even before the seventh century. What is described in Chilapthikaram is not Bharatanatyam. It is Dasiattam. Madhavi was the greatest exponent of Dasiattam of the time. Her training had been unique. The description given in the poem shows that Bharata’s Natya Sastra had a great influence on the dancing schools of Dravidavritta at that time.


            The system of dancing that existed in Dravidavritta was built around the Devadasi (also known as Thevadicbi or Thevaradi-achi, the servant of God). They had a good style of dancing in vogue. With the advent of the Aryans and the absorption of knowledge contained in the Sanskrit works the Dasiattam teachers found it to their advantage to adopt Bharata’s Narya Sastra in giving sophistication to their styles. Thus even earlier than the seventh century Dasiattam seemed to have acquired a system and a certain degree of sophistication. During the days of the Chola and the Chera empires Dasiattam was very popular in South India. It was considered most respectable too. That was the beginning of the Bhakti period in Tamil Nadu. Many of the Devadasis were pious and pure. It would be interesting to know that Kulasekhara Alwar of Kerala gave one of his daughters as the bride of Ranganatha. Dasiattam however did not stay at its pinnacle for long. When the disintegration of the Chola, Pandya and Chera empires began, Devadasis were forced to seek the protection of local warlords and chieftains. As distinct from an organised society under powerful empire building kings, the warlords and chieftains held away over small principalities. Standards of law and order or morality were also totally different in the new situation. Devadasis gradually fell a prey to the newly emerged carnel society and they deteriorated in every manner. Ultimately Dasiattam was even banned by law. It was at that time that the immortal Thanjavur Trio came like an Avatar to rescue this beautiful damsel in distress. That they did a most magnificent job is known to us all today.


            Dasiattam which served as the base for Bharatanatyam was also the base for both Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam styles of dancing. Kuchipudi style is about 500 years old. Dasiattam in the 15th century was in a very disreputable state. A rare artist and choreographer from a small village near Tenali however saw the real art form that it contained. He wanted to redeem it. It could not be redeemed unless its shape itself was changed. So he took out the essence of it, added some of his own and converted it into a lovely form. Then he came across the real difficulty. No girl of society would come forward to learn it. So he picked up good-looking boys and taught them the new dance in his house in Kuchipudi village. And what is known as Kuchipudi, thus grew up amidst popular acclaim. Even today, the great performers of Kuchipudi are men. Society no doubt took to later; but it was only after Smt. Rukmini Devi of Kalakshetra started dancing herself into the hearts of Sahridayas in Bharatanatya that society girls started learning Kuchipudi. 


            Mohiniyattam literally means the dance of the Mohini. Mohini : name of the greatest enchantress. By the name itself Mohiniyattam sounds seductive or erotic. As a term Mohiniyattam is found only in Kerala. But the word Mohini has been used to describe dancing girls in Tamil Nadu also. There is recorded evidence in Tamil Nadu of payment of Mohinipanam, that is, the fees for a Mohini.


            In the old days also there were a number of occasions when Kerala was under the President’s rule. In those days the President was however called Perumal. The principal chieftains of kerala used to meet once in twelve years and elect their Perumal or king for the next twelve years. They never chose a Keralian for the post. They always brought in a person from Tamil Nadu or occasionally from Karnataka. Most of the Perumals were of Tamil origin. The Perumals had their headquarters at Tiruvanchikkulam in Cranganur near Cochin. As the Perumals were usually Tamilians the parties that accompanied them included the favourite Devadasis too. Mostly they travelled through the Palghat gap in the Western Ghats. All the Devadasis did not settle down in Cranganur. They stayed at different places famous for their temples. They were places that were frequently visited by the Perumals also. Pazhayannur, Korattikara and Perungottukurussi are some of these areas where for several centuries there were families of dancing girls. According to Mr. Rama Pisharoti a number of Devadasis came away and took shelter in Kerala during the Moslem invasion of Tamil Nadu in the 14th century. He thought that most of them settled down in these places. Dances performed in those days in the temples or in the court were not called Mohiniyattam. Otherwise there would have been references to Mohiniyattam in the literary works of that time. Leelathilakam of the fourteenth century talks of the lovely female dancers but not Mohiniyattam. So also Onam performance done by the four thevadichis of Thiruvella temple in the eleventh century was also not called Mohiniyattam.


            The earliest mention of Mohiniyattam in a Kerala literary work appears in “Vyavasharamala” written in 1709. The reference relates to payments made to ‘Mohiniyattam Mutalaya Attakkar’, that is, dancers like Mohiniyattam players. There were other references too of a similar nature in the 18th century. One could therefore presume that sometime in the 17th century a choreographer whose identity is not known seems to have done some work on the Dasiattam then existing in Kerala and changed it to Mohiniyattam. Whatever it be, it did not seem to be as wide-spread in Kerala as Dasiattam was in Tamil Nadu.


            I believe it will be fair to say that just as the Thanjavur Trio discovered the current form of Bharatanatyam, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal discovered the present form of Mohiniyattam. He and his illustrious courtiers Irayimmen Thampi and Kilimanoor Koil Thampuran (Karindran) evidently put their aesthetic heads together and produced out of the Dasiattam of the time, the refinement that is known as Mohiniyattam today. They composed many pieces for it. Swarajathis, Varnas and scores of Padas. Swathi Thirunal had the rare assistance and advice of Vadivelu of Thanjavur too. Vadivelu had just come out to Trivandrum after witnessing, and participating in the renaissance of Dasiattam in the Bharatanatyam. His accounts aroused enough interest in the Maharaja to get the famous danseuse Sugandhavalli from Tanjavur. It is possible that the influence of Vadivelu and Sugandhavalli may have contributed to some movements or other in Mohiniyattam too.


            After the demise of the Maharaja, one Parameswara Bhagavathar of Palghat, who was a musician in his court returned to his native place and with the help and co-operation of some Tamil people of Coimbatore he started a class in Mohiniyattam style of dancing. Though it had a tremendous appeal arid even many society girls in central Kerala took to its study, it died out after about hundred years.


            Although Swathi Thirunal and his courtiers made much of Mohiniyattam, it did not catch on in Kerala. That was because Swathi’s successor Uttram Thirunal was fanatically devoted to Kathakali. In his time all courtiers turned to Kathakali for gaining royal favour. At the same time in Cochin State too Kathakali had become the dominant art form. Mohiniyattam therefore travelled down to petty principalities and the dancers were forced to earn a living by disreputable means. At the end of the last century it had reached the lowest depths an art form could descend to.


            When the Kerala Kalamandalam was started by Poet Vallathol and Shri Mukunda Raja efforts were made by them to revive among other Kerala arts Mohiniyattam also. But for these efforts Mohiniyattam would have died a natural death and it would have been practically impossible to revive this art form. For, even when the Kerala Kalamandalam was started it was only with very great difficulty that suitable teachers could be found for teaching

The art.


            Thanks to the efforts of Poet Vallathol, Kerala Kalamandalam was able to find out Smt. O. Kalyani Amma who could dance well and teach the art. In those days, it was not easy to get respectable girls to study Mohiniyattam. Shri Mukunda Raja has described with what great difficulty he persuaded Thankamani to join Mohiniyattam class under Kalyani Amma. Thankamani who was the first girl to study Mohiniyattam in Kalamandalam later married Guru Gopinath. When Kalamandalam was persuaded to lend the services of Smt. Kalyani Amma to Santiniketan at the request of Poet Tagore, the burden of teaching Mohiniyattam in Kalamandalam fell on the shoulders of Guru Krishna Panicker. It was Shri Krishna Panicker who trained up Smt. Kalyanikutty Amma (who later married Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair) in Mohiniyattam.


            Smt. Kalyanikutty Amma has in a recent interview observed that “while the dance ‘mudras’ of Mohiniyattam are well classified, defined and even carved out so as to be expressive of the finest and subtlest emotion and the edifice of Mohiniyattam stands on a well-developed theory, there is no systematic literature worth the name on the subject.” Efforts are now being made by the Kerala Kalamandalam to remedy the situation and to formulate suitable text-books on the subject.


Today a programme of Mohiniyattam cannot last for more than an hour. That is because the items now in practice are only a Cholkettu, a Swarajathi, a Varna and a few Padas. Originally it would appear that as against the sequence of Alarippu, Jathiswara, Sabda, Varna, Padas and Thillana in Baratanatyam, Mohiniyattam also could show a Cholkettu, Swarajathi, Varna, Padas and a Sloka. Smt. Kalyanikutti Amma maintains that there was Thillana also in Mohiniyattam.


The Mohiniyattam we know of today begins with Cholkettu in Adi, or Chempada Thala in Chakravaka Raga. Swarajathis are also found in Mohiniyattam. The Varnas are in Malayalam and in Telugu. Those sung now-a-days are compositions of Swathi Thirunal and Irayimmen Thampi. These songs are full of erotic meaning. In olden times Thoppi Maddalam and small Kuzhithalam used for Mohiniyattam. Also a sort of flute called Mukhaveena. For Sruthi a leather instrument known as Thuthi was used. That both Mohiniyattatn and Bharatanatyam were carved out of the same Dasiattam was also evidenced by the costumes in the past. An eighteen cubit long cloth with the typical way of draping it with mel-jeri and keezh-jeri and with a short blouse revealing the midriff and with a low neckline and the way of covering the breasts as well as the coiffure were more or less similar. The jewellery used was different from that used for Bharatanatyam. The following are some of them: Nettichutti, Kundalams, Mukuthis (Valayam), Mudukus, Kalchuttipathakkam and gold necklaces. It was customary to apply beauty spots to the chin and cheeks.


A Nattuvanar used to be present at one side of the dancer for both Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam. Long ago even the Nattuvanar had his dress regulation. A special type of turban was the conspicuous part of it. In Kerala he was called Nettuvan–not Nettuvanar as in Tamil Nadu.


It might be interesting to examine whether Kathakali has had any serious influence over Mohiniyattam. It is a fact that Kathakali Padas are not used in Mohiniyattam. Yet Kathakali Mudras have exercised some influence. The Mudras used in Mohiniyattam are not pure; they are an admixture of Kathakali Mudras and gestures used in Kaikottikkali and folk dances of Kerala. Other than this there has been no noticeable influence of Kathakali on Mohiniyattam.