Dance Forms: Mohini Attam

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Dance Forms: Mohini Attam

Mohini Attam, which literally means "dance of the enchantress," is a solo dance form of Kerala, performed only by female dancers. In Tamil Nadu dēvadāsis (servants of the gods) performed in the temples, but in Kerala women dancers were attached only to Suchindram and Tripunithura temples. References are found in a Nedumpara Tali inscription, dated a.d. 934, to Tali Nangyars performing solo dances. Literary references are found in Manipravala kavyas (poems) about dancers. Kunjan Nambiar mentions Mohini Attam in his Ghoshyatra. Mattancheri palace and Padmanabhapuram murals suggest the popularity of the Mohini myth, and manuals like Balaramabharata deal with the hastas, the hand gestures used in Mohini Attam dance. The influence of Dasiattam, the precursor of contemporary Bharata Natyam, on the existing female dance forms in Kerala is clear. By the nineteenth century in the court of the poet-king Swati Tirunal, two dance gurus, brothers Sivanandam and Vadivelu, received royal patronage, and they contributed to the shaping of Mohini Attam on lines similar to solo Bharata Natyam.

Kerala's lovely landscape, lined with swaying coconut fronds, with boats bobbing on its rippling lagoon waters, is reflected in the gentle movement patterns of Mohini Attam dance. The smooth circular movement of the torso forms the central motif. Movement starts at the center of the body and travels to the periphery. Along with the swaying torso, the waist, shoulders, elbows, and wrists move with flexibility and precision. Nritta (pure dance) and nritya (expressional dance) are both part of Mohini Attam, and the Nātya Shāstra principles of rasa theory, or aesthetics, govern Mohini Attam.

Formerly, a Mohini Attam recital began with cholkettu, a number of pure dances interspersed with expressional poems and the rendering of mnemonics. With the recent revival of Mohini Attam, native classical Sopana music of Kerala has been introduced, and Ganapati prayers are added, as well as the poems of Swati Tirunal and Iriyamana Tampi and songs from the Gita Govinda. Elegant white costumes with gold borders and ornaments enrich the dance.

When the poet Vallathol established Kerala's Kala Mandalam in 1936, primarily for training students in Kathakali, he also rescued Mohini Attam by institutionalizing its training. Exponents like Kalyani, Madhavi, and Krishna Panicker were asked to teach there. Devotional bhakti fervor permeates most of the songs used in modern performances of Mohini Attam by such popular artists as Shatna Rao, Satyabhama, Kshemavathy, and Sugandhi. Kanak Rele and Bharati Shivaji have reconstructed this dance form using a scientific approach, choreographing new numbers and enhancing its popularity.

Sunil Kothari


Rele, Kanak. Mohini Attam: The Lyrical Dance. Mumbai: Nalanda Dance Research Center, 1992.

Shivaji, Bharati. The Art of Mohiniyattam. New Delhi: Lancer International, 1986.

Venu, G., and Nirmala Panikar. Mohiniyattam: The LasyaDance. Irinjalakuda, Kerala, 1983.