Genealogies and legacies: A postcolonial historiography of Mohiniyattam


August 2023

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This dissertation develops an alternate history of the classical dance form Mohiniyattam native to the state of Kerala in India to acknowledge the amalgamation of the kinesthetic contributions of different practitioners in Mohiniyattam. I explore how the identities of the indigenous Mohiniyattam dancers shifted as they became implicated in the changing discourses of colonialism and nationalism and how they became the subjects in larger debates about sexuality, womanhood, and the nation. In this project, I situate Mohiniyattam in the larger context of nationalist movements in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, which paved the way to the independence of India in 1947 and connect it with the notion of Victorian morality, which seeped into the social ethos of the nation during the colonial period. I also focus on the shift of a major community in Kerala society from matriarchy to patriarchy as well as on the division of India into various states on the basis of regional languages after independence; I explore how these socio-political issues are all intertwined with the history of bodies in Mohiniyattam as well as the reconstruction of the form. In this dissertation, I pay attention to the choreographies, dance pieces, and movement vocabularies of various dancers whose contributions are considered as invaluable to the development of Mohiniyattam. My research mainly relied on oral histories and archival research to develop a qualitative study of four practitioners who were identified as pioneer contributors to the field of Mohiniyattam in the postcolonial era: Kalyanikuttyamma, Kalamandalam Satyabhama, Kanak Rele, and Bharathi Shivaji. Though the reconstruction of Mohiniyattam in the 1950s parallels the renaissance and reincarnation of many classical dance forms in India, I argue that the historical, cultural, and geographic elements of Mohiniyattam are specific to the form.



Dance studies; Postcolonial studies; Historiography