CHENNAI: Long locks of curly black hair tied in a single knot at the end, a big red bindi and a neat line of kajal contouring the eyes. In a typical Malayali settu sari, mohiniyattam dancer Gopika Varma demonstrates a few dance steps to the audience in her 15 minute performance at IIT on the second day of the ongoing SPIC MACAY’s second International convention.
“Not much stamping. It should be like you are dancing on a grass bed,” she says, as she sways from one side to another, her hair mirroring her moves like a pendulum. “We don’t do straight lines at all. The moves duplicate the waves, the palm trees and the green fields of Kerala,” she says, and follows this instruction with another step.
Imparting such nuances of the dance, she hopes to make people aware about it if not make an artiste out of them in the available time. “This batch of students is very special to me because I have even got delegates from Karachi wanting to learn. Though they have seen bharatanatyam and kathak in Bollywood, they are seeing mohiniyattam for the first time,” she tells us.
Gopika who was born and raised in Kerala, has been in Chennai for the past 15 years and runs a mohiniyattam school called Dasyam which has over a hundred students. She took a 11-year break from dance due to health reasons but got back to it in 2002 to a surprising reception from the audience. What did she do during the break? “I taught block printing for the hearing-impaired. The art within me was suffocating inside. I had to let it out, though not necessarily in the form of dance,” she says.
‘The dance of the enchantress’, as she calls it, has elements of nritta, they are very delicate. The most important element of the dance is the abhinaya. “Like other dance forms of Kerala — kudiyattam, kathakali and ottamthullal — even mohiniyattam has a huge abhinaya base,” says Gopika, who learnt abhinayas from the doyen of Kathakali Kalamandalam, Krishnan Nair.
Gopika, who is married to Prince Poorurttathi Thirunal Marthanda Varma of the royal Travancore family, started learning mohiniyattam when she was just 10 and specialised in it from the dance doyens, Kalyani Kuttyamma and her daughter Sreedevi Rajan. Known to have mastered the sopana style or the dance form practised in temples, Gopika chose an ashtapadi (a devotional hymn of eight lines) about Krishna — Chandana charchita — to perform at IIT.
“Though ashtapadis were written by Jayadeva, a poet from Puri, in Kerala we use it in temples to wake up the god and put him to sleep,” she says. In her brief performance, she emoted the scene of lord Krishna enjoying himself with the gopikas, as Radha sat forlorn after a fight with him. “Though shringaram (beauty) was predominant in the piece, the aspect of bhakti was also very important,” she says, placing her dance anklets on her eyes, with reverence after the performance.