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The Dance of an Enchantress: Interview with Manjula Murthy

Spic Macay is a nation wide non-political movement that aims to imbibe the youth of the country with a better understanding of the Indian culture and its subsequent art forms through a variety of workshops and demonstrations. During the last week of January, the University town of Manipal witnessed a similar seminar on the classical dance form ‘Mohiniyattam’ that is indigenous to the state of Kerala. The event was conducted by the renowned classical dancer Vid. Manjula Murthy, who has garnered worldwide acclamation through her performances. Dressed in the customary attire, she began the session with a retelling of the origin story of Mohiniyattam, and then proceeded to dissect the multitude of movements and expressions involved in the dance process. After her performance, we received the opportunity to catch up with her:

  1. What is your earliest memory of classical dance?

When I was five years old I used to sit behind my guru and sleep (laughs). That is the earliest memory I have of classical dance. I started with Bharatanatyam. It was the first style of dance that I learnt. My parents wanted me to learn a classical dance form so I used to go to the class, hold my guru’s ‘palla’, and sleep behind her (laughs).

  1. At an early age, you received the opportunity to learn from Kalyanikutti Amma who is often credited for reviving Mohiniyattam as a classical dance form. What was that experience like?
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    PC: The Photography Club

It is very difficult to find a guru who is a master in Mohiniyattam. I started with Kalyanikutti Amma. She was part of one of the first groups of Kalamandalam. They ran out of the house and came to learn Mohiniyattam. At that time Mohiniyattam was in a severely rigid form. It was a very small form of dance.

Of course, now it’s being revived and enhanced a lot by different people. It was a wonderful opportunity for me because I’m from a small town known as Davangere. I was selected to join Nrityagram which was built by Protima Bedi for preserving classical art forms. I was part of the first batch of students that started learning Mohiniyattam there and that is where Kalyanikutti Amma also taught. So for the first two years I learnt from her and from then on I’ve been following Padma Shri Bharathi Shivagi. I’m with her for almost twenty six years now.

  1. Classical dance forms such as Mohiniyattam often command a lot of patience and discipline. So the general consensus is that it must be practiced from an early age. What do you have to say to that? Is it possible for nineteen and twenty year olds to take it up as well?

 It’s not just Mohiniyattam, all dance forms demand devotion and discipline. Of course to understand Mohiniyattam you have to be a little mature because the ‘Abhinaya’ part of the dance requires proper understanding and it is a mature kind of dance form all together. Of course, kids do learn it. But normally Mohiniyattam requires mature understanding or at least that’s what I feel.

  1. Your list of performances have spanned the globe. From Japan to New York City. What are the kind of reactions that Mohiniyattam garners outside of the country? How are your performances perceived there?

Whenever I have performed abroad, it has always been before a packed arena. That is always a wonderful experience because most of my performances in the country are limited to an audience of ten or twenty members. I have travelled to South Africa, Russia, and of course USA and Japan. All of them respect Indian culture. I wish Indians respected it more. It is a great experience performing abroad because they value our art so much. The value, the hospitality, and the respect that you receive (for Indian classical dance forms) overseas is immense. And I’m fortunate that I had so many opportunities to perform in major festivals outside of India.

  1. What would you say to women aspiring to become a professional classical dancer such as yourself?
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PC: The Photography Club

Obviously there is no admission or anything of the sort. What the guru does, you just follow. You don’t need to go to an institution or anything of that kind. I follow my guru as a teacher. I follow her as a person too. Having a PhD or a Master’s degree doesn’t make you a good dancer. You have to dance through your soul. I learnt my dance form in the traditional ‘Guru Shishya’ form of learning. I used to clean my guru’s house and massage her feet. She is like a mother to me. I still learn and perform with her, and I will continue to do so till she’s there. But a lot of people have an unfortunate habit of changing gurus. You must follow one guru. It is only then that a certain style of dancing is imbibed in your mind. I’m actually fortunate to have my guru beside me and it is because of her that I’m here.

  1. Why and when did you become involved with Spic Macay?

 After I received the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi’ award, they began inviting me to represent Mohiniyattam in the electives and so on. I just finished a WT. WT is something that we do for the children in government schools, I have done a lot of performances and workshops for them during conventions, and people do come to learn.

I really thank Dr. Kiran Seth, who is a great art lover, and he’s working extremely hard to preserve our dance forms. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to visit colleges because it gives me the chance to speak to the younger generation and create awareness.