A feminine dance known for its depiction of love in many forms such as divine, maternal and carnal, Mohiniyattam was originally practiced by the Devadasis in Kerela. It is a solo dance performed by women and is closely similar to Bharatnatyam. It was performed in the temples and royal courts of Kerela in the ancient times and is recorded to have begun in the 3rdand the 8thcenturies. It was from the 16thand the 18thcenturies that the early references to Mohiniyattam have been found in texts. However, in the 19th century, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal of Travancore highly patronized the dance and hence, the dance evolved as a solo dance form based on Carnatic music. During the British colonial rule in India, there was an unfortunate period of decline. The dance was further revived and promoted by the famous poet Vallathol Narayana Menon who established the Kerela Kalamandalam to promote both, Mohiniyattam and Kathakali.
According to the Hindu mythology, the word Mohiniyattam is derived from the words ‘mohini’ meaning ‘a woman who enchants onlookers’ and ‘attam’ meaning ‘graceful and sensuous body movements’. Hence, Mohiniyattam literally means ‘dance of the enchantress’. Legends say that in order to entice the asuras (demons), Lord Vishnu took the form of a Mohini. The asuras rushed towards the bowl of the nectar during the churning of the ocean. Lord Vishnu, in its feminine form of Mohini enticed the asuras and took the away the bowl. Another story describes the trick of Lord Vishnu who appeared as Mohini to save Lord Shiva from the demon Bhasmasura. The main theme of the Mohiniyattam dance is love and devotion to God, with usually Vishnu or Krishna being the hero.
Shringara or the love for the Divine is the dominant emotion in this dance. There are about 40 atavukal (basic movements) of the dance and few of its movements involve the swaying of broad hips as well as gentle movements of erect posture from side–to–side. These movements are well communicated through hand gestures. Adavus-toganam, jaganam, dhaganam and sammisram are the basic steps in this dance form. All these adavus are set to musical compositions and the varnam has greater emphasis on abhinaya and less on nritta or pure dance. The dance begins with the Ganesha stuti followed by the mukhachalam, a pure dance item where the graceful movements are visible. There are five principal items of the repertoire of Mohiniyattam. These include cholkettu and then varnam, jatiswaram, followed by padam, and then concluded by tillana. Padam tests the histrionic talent of a dancer, Varnam is a combination of pure and expressional dance and tillana reveals her technical artistry.
Along with a vocal support of Carnatic classical, Mohiniyattam involves music variations in rhythmic structure known as chollu. The lyrics for the dance are in Manipravala which is a combination of the Sanskrit and Malayalam language. Earlier, the background music was provided by thoppi maddalam and veena. However, later with time, these were replaced. The basic accompaniment for Mohiniyattam includes cymbals and violin as well as Indian musical instruments such as Mridangam (a percussion instrument), Maddalam (another percussion instrument) and Edakka (an hour–glass shaped percussion instrument played with a stick).
The costume needed for performing Mohiniyattam is sober and attractive. The main feature of Mohiniyattam is its realistic make–up and simple dressing. The dancer is attired in a beautiful white and gold–bordered pleated Kasavu saree of Kerela. The female dancers adorn themselves with ornaments including the special–head ornaments, earrings, necklace, bangles, rings, waist–ornaments and anklets. Also, there is an aesthetic appeal with the unique coiffure. The hair is gathered on the left side of the head and a bunch of jasmine flowers adorns the hair tied into a bun making it distinct from the other dance forms of India.