The year was 1987, Indian cultural festival was being celebrated in Russia. In the vast venue, with not less than 10-12 stages, as a group of women adorned in beautiful white sarees with golden borders performed Mohiniyattam, the crowd was bedazzled by the sheer beauty of the performance. So much so, that as the group switched stages to perform their piece, the crowd moved with them. In that group of women was performing a 19-year-old dancer who went on to become a renowned exponent of Mohiniyattam, Jayaprabha Menon. This performance, according to Jayaprabha, is one of her most memorable and special performances.
With all its beautiful swaying circular movements, prominent expressions, and euphonious traditional music, the artform of Mohiniyattam didn't always enjoy the respect and appreciation it does now. Jayaprabha Menon, a Mohiniyattam dancer and exponent, has played a significant role in getting the dance form its due.
Jayaprabha has been a dancer for as long as she can remember. However, Mohiniyattam was not always her first love when it came to dances. In fact, while training under Kalamandalam Saraswathy at Nrityalaya in Calicut, Kerala at the age of four, she learned Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam. She performed all these art forms at different stages and enjoyed them equally. It never occurred to her that she wanted to pursue Mohiyattam only, and that too, professionally. Instead, after training under Kalamandalam Saraswathy for twenty years, she went on to train under Guru C V Chandrasekhar and Jaya Chandrasekhar in Bharatanatyam. She even tells that at a point, she was deeply into Bharatanatyam.
After performing all of these dance forms for a better part of her dancing career, it wasn't until Jayaprabha saw Bharati Shivaji, a virtuoso of Mohiniyattam herself, that she decided to fully switch to Mohiniyattam. In her own words, "I was mesmerised by seeing her performing Mohiniyattam. It showed me how much the dance form had to offer and how truly beautiful it is." Jayaprabha was in such awe of Bharti ji's performance that she even switched her school of Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam to Sopana Sangeetgham. She even said that it was the point when she realised that Mohiniyattam was what she wanted to pursue professionally. she says, "Dance has always been all I have known. I never knew anything else. Seeing Bhartiji dance made me more sure about what I wanted to do in life, and that was and will always be to dance."
She even started her Mohiniyattam training under Bharati Shivaji, however, it wasn't an easy journey for her. Jayaprabha tells us, "I was 38 at the time, I just had my second child. I wasn't practising any dance for good three years. In a workshop with Bharti Shivaji, I couldn't move my body. My body was stiff as a rock and I couldn't sway my body which is required for Mohiniyattam. Even Bhartiji said that I won't be able to perform Mohiniyattam now." This made Jayaprabha sad, however, it couldn't crush her spirits. Such was Jayaprabha's determination that she continued to practise Mohiniyattam at her home while continuing her motherly duties. With a hint of self-awareness, she says, "I don't like to do anything half-heartedly. If I am doing something, I give it my all. That's what I did with Mohiniyattam."
Having been performing on stage for almost five decades now, Menon describes the stage to be her second home. Although people respected the art of Mohiniyattam, it was somewhere considered secondary to other Indian traditional dance forms such as Kathak and Bharatnatyam, and this always pinched Menon. Through her presence on stage, however, she made sure that she held her head high as a Mohiniyattam dancer and showed people how great of an art form it is. She says, "People have been conditioned, they don't think Mohiniyattam to be a very significant dance form. I didn't like that. I have done a lot of multi-style productions with legends such as Sonal Mansingh, Birju Maharaj and Sadhna Paranji, I have been very careful to not let the art form down in anyway. They'd say that you dance and we'll match your pace, but I refused and said that they dance and I'll match their pace. This is how I made sure Mohiniyattam gets the respect it deserves." Jayaprabha is also of the view that people don't know much about Mohiniyattam because there are very less practitioners of it. She wants to change that.
Being a master of her art, Jayaprabha doesn't believe in confining herself to the constraints of traditional dance forms. She believes that every dancer can bring a little something of their own to their performance. She says, "Whenever you are on stage, I believe that you should use your art form as a medium to say something new and adapt accordingly. Use the frame of your art to suit the theme of the event. Your aim should be to communicate with the audience while being in line with the theme of the event."
Jayaprabha now teaches Mohiniyattam to about 90 students in her home in South Delhi. Apart from training the kids for dance, she also trains them to perform. Menon says, "Traditionally, everyone practices to perfect the art form for four to five years, however, when they get on stage, they are bound to be nervous. I want to train my students to be able to perform on stage with confidence and finesse." She believes in being true to one's art and that's what she is imparting to the next generation of Mohiniyattam dancers.