Mohiniyattam exponent’s slur raises questions of caste gate-keeping in the arts - Hindustan Times
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Mohiniyattam exponent’s slur raises questions of caste gate-keeping in the arts

Mar 24, 2024 08:16 AM IST

After Sathyabhama's comments over Ramakrishnan's skin colour sparked outrage, artistes from marginalised communities are seeking reckoning over discrimination

"Mohini"—an iconic feminine form of the Hindu god Vishnu in Indian mythology—is where Mohiniyattam, a classical dance form that originated in Kera, derives its name.

A Mohiniyattam group dance performance PREMIUM
A Mohiniyattam group dance performance

According to the Natya Shastra, the ancient text on performance arts, Mohini was a celestial enchantress and a peerless seductress. She appeared when the asuras took possession of the sacred elixir of immortality, amrit. To ensure that the elixir remained with the benevolent devas,

Mohini appears in all her luscious beauty before the Asura leadership, who succumb to her charms and agree to her demands to disburse the amrit among its forces. Instead, she distributes among the devas.

While the story is a mythical one, many practitioners believe the attributes of Mohini — grace, beauty, purity — must apply to those who practise the dance form.

When Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, a 66-year-old veteran performer who runs a celebrated dance school in Thiruvananthapuram, narrated the story on the YouTube channel of DNA News Malayalam, no one expected the slur targeting a male performer of this classical dance form.

Speaking about RLV Ramakrishnan, a Dalit and celebrated performer and dance teacher, Sathyabhama said the artist's complexion made him look like a crow.

Ramakrishnan is the younger brother of late actor Kalabhavan Mani, who hailed from Chalakudy in central Kerala and contributed immensely to the Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu film worlds.

“Mohiniyattam is an art form where you have to keep the legs wide apart. It looks vulgar when such men perform it. In my opinion, men who perform Mohiniyattam should be fair-skinned and look beautiful," she said in the interview.

Sathyabhama’s statements don’t come as a surprise in an artistic milieu obsessed with fair skin and caste purity.

Backlash against Sathyabhama

The Kerala Kalamandalam, a deemed-to-be-university in Kerala established by iconic poet Vallathol Narayana Menon to promote classical art forms like Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, and Bharatanatyam, disapproved of its former student’s comments. It issued a press statement saying its name prefixed to Sathyabhama was a blight on the institution, which strives hard to ensure equal and just practices in the world of fine arts.

“Sathyabhama is just one among the thousands of former students. The famous Kalamndalam Sathyabhama died in 2015 at the age of 77 and left behind a rich legacy of being a great teacher and choreographer who modified the performance techniques of Mohiniyattam. Kindly make it known that this is not the same Sathyabhama whom the Kalamandalam and Kerala adore with gratitude," said Kalamandalam vice chancellor B. Ananthakrishnan.

The Kerala State Human Rights Commission has suo moto registered a case against her and initiated an investigation. Activists of the Congress-led UDF, CPI(M)-led LDF, and BJP have filed numerous police complaints against Sathyabhama in different police stations across the state.

BJP's Thrissur constituency candidate Suresh Gopi said he would not like to comment on the controversy, but invited Ramakrishnan to perform at his family's ancestral temple in Kollam. Ramakrishnan thanked Gopi for the invitation but turned it down stating that he had another programme scheduled on that day. Speaking at a separate function in Palakkad, Ramakrishnan said that he would perform Mohiniyattam on the streets in protest against Sathyabhama's remarks.

The police have also sought legal opinion on further action. Mathrubhumi, the second largest newspaper in Malayalam, avoided colour photographs on its front page as a mark of solidarity with Ramakrishnan.

"I never felt inferior about my complexion. To me, it's my beauty and identity. I am in the process of initiating legal action against Sathyabhama, and I am sure only such a move can help Dalit artists and performers to survive the racial onslaughts," Ramakrishnan said.

Sathyabhama has refused to retract her comments. "I completed my Mohiniyattam course at Kalamandalam, where I was taught that beauty is one of the qualities of dance. I believe it is important for a dancer. I will express my opinion openly, which is why people don't consider me for awards," she said.

Gatekeeping common in the arts

On Friday, hundreds of students of RLV College, mostly women, danced on the streets of Kochi, ignoring the soaring mercury, to express solidarity with Ramakrishnan. Kerala's temple affairs minister, K Radhakrishnan, said that inequality was increasing in the society and Sathyabhama's words did not befit her.

Actor Manikandan Achary reminded Satyabhama in a Facebook post that the era of elites dictating to the masses has ended. “Our performance will include singing, dancing, and acting. Only those truly interested in what we have to offer will tune in. You can no longer dictate the destinies of other people,” he wrote.

"I have experienced casteism and racist mentality over the years," says Praseetha Chalakudy, a Dalit folk singer from Kerala. I had to fight for the respect I enjoy in society, but I finally succeeded. A Dalit artist has a tough time breaking into the mainstream of popular culture. People continue to insult me online by bringing up my caste. Even though my salary has improved recently, folk singers are still often undervalued,” she added.

Dalit groups in Kerala have consistently drawn attention to the fact that there is a lot of racial and caste bias in the performing arts. For instance, in the panchavadyam ensemble (an orchestra of five instruments) the percussion players are usually from the upper-caste Marar or Poduval communities. According to Dalit scholar Sunny Apikad, the Cochin Devaswom Board refused to appoint the renowned Nair artist Biju Sopanam because “only members of the Marar or Poduval community can be sopanam singers.”

Elavoor Anil, a Chakiar Koothu performer who is also a member of the Nair community, has been disallowed on occasions to perform in large temples as he is not a member of the Brahmin sub-sect traditionally associated with the performance, he said.

The Chakiar Koothu is a monologue where the dancer narrates episodes from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or stories from the Puranas. On occasion, it transforms into a traditional equivalent of modern stand-up comedy, incorporating commentary on current socio-political events.

The gatekeeping also extends to religions.

Mansiya VP, a Bharatnatyam dancer who was born Muslim, has a hard time fitting in at Hindu temples. In March 2022, the Koodalmanikyam temple in Thrissur cancelled her performance at the National Festival of Dance and Music. Despite her marriage to a Hindu, the Koodalmanikyam temple insisted that she publicly declare her worship of Hindu deities.

Saumya Sukumaran, a Christian Bharatanatyam dancer who is married to a Hindu, was denied the opportunity to perform at the Koodalmanikyam temple in 2022.

"The fact that Ramakrishnan had to be punished for daring to join a realm controlled by the elite demonstrates that the Dhronacharya syndrome is still prevalent even today. We must overcome this mindset," said political analyst J Prabhash.

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