Mohiniyattam, the female semi-classical dance form of Kerala is said to be older than Kathakali. Literally, the dance of the enchantress, Mohiniyattam was mainly performed in the temple precincts of Kerala. It is also the heir to Devadasi dance heritage like Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. The word 'Mohini' means a maiden who exerts desire or steals the heart of the onlooker. There is a well known story of Lord Vishnu taking on the guise of a 'Mohini' to enthrall people, both in connection with the churning of the milk ocean and with the episode of slaying of Bhasmasura. Thus it is thought that Vaishnava devotees gave the name of Mohiniyattam to this dance form.
The first reference to Mohiniyattam is found in 'Vyavaharamala' composed by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri, assigned to the 16th century AD. In the 19th century, Swati Thirunal, the king of erstwhile Travancore, did much to encourage and stabilise this art form. The post Swati period however witnessed the downfall of this art form. It somehow degenerated into eroticism to satisfy the Epicurean life of some provincial Satraps and landlords. It was Poet Vallathol who again revived it and gave it a status in modern times through Kerala Kalamandalam, which he founded in 1930. Kalamandalam Kalyaniamma, the first dance teacher of Kalamandalam was instrumental in resuscitating this ancient art form. Along with her, Krishna Panicker, Madhavi Amma and Chinnammu Amma, the last links of a disappearing tradition, nurtured aspirants in the discipline at Kalamandalam.
The theme of Mohiniyattam is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna is more often the hero. The spectators could feel his invisible presence when the heroine or her maid details dreams and ambitions through the circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions. The dancer in the slow and medium tempos is able to find adequate space for improvisations and suggestive bhavas. In format, this is similar to Bharatanatyam. The movements are graceful like Odissi and the costumes sober and attractive. It is essentially a solo dance, but in present times it is performed in groups also. The repertoire of Mohiniyattam follows closely that of Bharatanatyam. Beginning with Cholkettu, the dancer performs Jathiswaram, Varnam, Padam and Thillana in a concert. Varnam combines pure and expressional dance, while Padam tests the histrionic talent of a dancer and Thillana exposes her technical artistry.
The basic dance steps are the Adavus which are of four kinds: Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram. These names are derived from the nomenclature called vaittari.
Mohiniyattam maintains a realistic makeup and simple dressing. The dancer is attired in the beautiful white and gold bordered Kasavu saree of Kerala.
Mohiniyattam like many other forms follows the Hastha Lakshanadeepika, as a text book for Mudras, or hand gestures. The style of vocal music for Mohiniyattam as is generally seen, is classical Carnatic. The lyrics composed by Maharaja Swati Tirunal and Irayimman Thampi are in Manipravala (a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam). Till recently, Thoppi Maddalam and Veena provided the background music of Mohiniyattam. These have been replaced in recent years by Mridangam and Violin.