Best Beat

Setting the Rhythm for Your Music

Mohiniattam – The Dance of the Enchantress

Mohiniattam – The Dance of the Enchantress


Mohiniattam is a very expressive dance form of Kerala, the most beautiful place in India. It is made of two words, “Mohini” and “attam”. Mohini refers to an extremely beautiful lady or enchantress and attam means dance. So this traditional Mohiniattam dance form basically means the dance of an enchantress. It is primarily performed solo but it has been enhanced so as to be performed by women in a group. The underlying style of performance is “Lasya” and the “Bhava” being Sringara or romantic love. This dance is enchantingly feminine with wave-like body movements. Delicate themes of love are performed with suggestive gestures, rhythmic footwork and lyrical music. The performance involves the swaying of broad hips and the gentle movements of erect posture from side to side. This is reminiscent of the swinging of the palm leaves and the gently flowing rivers which abound Kerala.

One of the youngest Indian classical dances, Mohiniattam came into being during the 16th Century A.D mainly under the influence of the king of Travancore, Swati Thirunal who was famous for his obsession with art forms. He was a great patron of fine arts and encouraged artists from all over India to perform at his court.


There are mainly two legends associated with the dance form. According to a Hindu legend, in order to escape a powerful curse, the gods decided to churn the divine ocean Palazhi (the ocean of the milk) to obtain the ambrosia of eternal life called “Amrith”. They had to get into a coalition with the demons in order to fulfill the task. They used the mountain Meru as the pivot and the serpent Vasuki as the rope to churn the ocean. Along with many other items that were thrown up by the constant churning, the golden pot containing the ambrosia also emerged. As soon as the pot became visible the demons snatched it for themselves and refused to share it with the gods. This raised the divine eyebrows. Imagine if the demons had become eternal after its consumption. They would take over all the three worlds-earth, heaven & the underworld! The gods ran to the preserver among the Hindu trinity-Vishnu who agreed to help the Gods considering the gravity of the situation. So, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of a gorgeous heavenly enchantress called “Mohini”. It wasn’t easy to obtain the pot back so Mohini broke in an enchanting and sensual dance and managed to seduce the fickle minded demons and snatch the “Pot of Amrith” from them and handed it over to the Gods.

Vishnu took the form of Mohini once again. This time to destroy the demon Bhasmasura (the demon of the ashes). This demon by through hard penance forced the gods to give him a boon-that he would be un-destroyable unless he himself pointed his finger at the top of his head. Thus, he deluded himself that he had obtained immortality. But foolish that he was, he had underestimated the cunning of the gods! Mohini appeared and started her slow enticement. The mesmerized demon started to dance with her following all her actions. Mohini worked the demon into frenzy and in the guise of a dance step, she pointed her finger at the top of her head which the demon copied and was turned into ash. This mesmerising dance of the divine Mohini thus came to be known as the “Mohiniattam”. In keeping with the hero of the legends, the theme of Mohiniattam dance is love and Krishna (the playboy God) is most often the hero. The performance elates the spectators when the dancer expresses her love for him through circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions. The dance form has 40 basic movements and used hand gestures or mudras to communicate its context. It has been influenced by two South Indian dance forms- the Bharathanatyam and Kathakali.


This beautiful style of dance involves the use of eye movements that are sensual yet does not provoke the viewer but enchants in such a way that it is not overt. The idea is to charm without being offensive. Thus the make-up and costume of a dancer is very simple yet elegant. Emphasis is laid on eye make up since most expressions involve emoting through eyes. The fluttering eye lashes, the curved eye brows and the captivating eyes all enchant the viewers and take them to a virtual paradise!

The color of the costume is usually white or off-white with a golden border called “Kasavu”. These sarees are characteristic of Kerala. The hair is done up in a bun on the side just above the ear and is decorated with jasmine flowers. It is well known that these flowers have a seductive fragrance. The jewelry is usually an elaborate pair of earrings and a choker for neck, teamed with a long necklace of coins.

The accompanying music is usually classical Carnatic, typical of south India. The vocal music of Mohiniattam involves variations in rhythmic structure known as chollu. The lyrics are in Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam. It is sung by trained singers or the teacher who teaches the performers to dance. The musical instruments used during the performance are Cymbals, Violin, typical musical instruments of Kerala-Mridangam, Maddhalam (percussion instruments) and Edakka (an hour-glass shaped percussion instrument).

The seduction or enchantment is slow and deliberate. Through slow and medium tempos, the dancer is able to find adequate space for improvisations and suggestive bhavas or emotions. The distinctive style of Mohiniattam is the complete absence of heavy stamping and rhythmical tension. Footwork in Mohiniattam is gentle and soft and sliding. The movements are never abrupt, they are dignified, easy and natural, but the vertical line of the body is never broken. It is characterized by the rhythmical swaying of the dancer from side to side and the smooth and unbroken flow of the body movement which is its striking feature. The dance is based on enhanced performance of feminine moods and emotions with the theme predominantly that of “sringara” or love. Hence, among the styles detailed by Bharatha Muni in the ancient Indian treatise on dance, the Natya Shastra, Mohiniattam resembles the Kaisiki type meaning graceful. The basic dance steps are the called “adavus” that are of four kinds- Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram.

After the death of Swathi Thirunal, the Mohiniattam went into a decline and in the twentieth century, the great Malayalam poet Vallathol revived it after establishing the Kerala Kalamandalam to promote it and Kathakali. The establishment also gets the credit for researching further about the dance and codified it. Over the past few decades, the repertoire of Mohiniattam has been developed and expanded by dedicated performers who have ensured that this beautiful dance style retains a distinct identity among the classical ones of India. It is a beautiful dance form that will survive for a long time to come and continue to represent the beauty and charm of the Malayali women.

By Sanjai Velayudhan

© Sanjai Velayudhan