Mythili Takes A Look Into Asif Jahi Courtesans

Mohiniyatam artist and academician Dr. Mythili Maratt Anoop, who has made Hyderabad her home, after receiving Tagore scholarship for cultural research from the Union Ministry of Culture worked on the buried histories of the courtesans in Asif Jahi Deccan. In a chat with Natyahasini, Dr. Mythili Anoop says that it was an interesting journey and she was able to source out some material, which very few had found earlier. Mythili says that the Dakhni language and culture has several instances of syncretism. “We need to draw from the best examples from our history – the city of Hyderabad itself has had a cosmopolitan culture and has several stories of communal harmony. Difference is the spice of life – we don’t want homogeneity or monolithic versions of culture. Love and empathy alone can make us appreciate our differences and our fundamental similarity; art is one of the most powerful means for awakening this sense.”

The Mohiniyattam dancer says that everyone has personal journeys and are caught up in personal narratives most of the time. “One of the things, I feel very strongly as an artist, is how the idea of Indian culture is misused for political ends. We live in scary times, when even the freedom of expression is thwarted and anyone can be targeted for the most absurd reasons. There in fact, seems no reason or rationale to many such allegations. All the arts, and forms of culture can open people’s minds and make them loving individuals, open to differences and diversity. We need to remove this bitterness between ‘us’ and ‘them’,” she says.

Artist’s Milestones: Speaking about the milestones in her dance career till date, Mythili says it was one that made her wake-up to the fact that she can dance and possibly had a bright future in it. “When I was around 8, I visited Mookambika Temple with my dance teacher and other students. In the same bus, were the Dhananjayans. I remember Dhananjayan Sir telling others, this girl has a nice round face – very suited for Mohiniyattam! That stayed with me somewhere. Later, when my teacher spoke to my parents saying that I was showing promise and could be trained for the youth festivals, if I was shifted to a government school from the private one, I was in, I realized, maybe I have some talent.” 

Mythili says that in school when she started doing well in stage events, and when the School Principal Nalini Chandran wrote in her final report card that she had a very good stage presence and should make a career out of it, it made her take note of it. “In the college festivals, when I did better than others who had won in these youth festivals and I was especially called and congratulated by our founder, it was another affirmation. The feedback and constant learnings from critics and dancers I got, while I was with Gopika (Varma) chechi, especially when she composed some pieces for me, were great milestones,” she says. The dancer states that both critical and encouraging feedback has kept her going and some of her students have admitted that dance class is a happy place for them and they like her style.  

Fascinated By Mohiniyattam: The dancer says that she was fascinated with Mohiniyattam when she used to see Kalamandalam Kshemavathy teacher and the pictures of her in costumes even as a very young child. “But I was not focussed even in my teens to want to pursue dance seriously. I just learnt and performed and enjoyed doing so. But after going to Guru Gopika Varma while I was pursuing my Masters in Chennai, I was completely smitten by the dance. Gopika chechi used to take classes at Ramalayam Palace in Adyar, the aura of the old palace, her performances effusing grace and immersed in bhaava to Sudevettan’s singing (Sudev Warier) was like something straight out of Swathi Thirunal’s time. It left a deep imprint in my mind, one that I would pursue the rest of my life,” she says.  

Recalling her initiation into dance, Mythili says that when she was about four or five years, there was a dance programme in school. “The teachers were doing something of an ‘audition’ for us – kindergarten kids. Even at that age, I understood well what was happening and wanted to be part of it. I knew it involved going on stage and getting dressed and make-up! But I was not chosen. I obviously didn’t pick up the move the teachers had showed us. I had no clue what I did or didn’t do. But I remember, I was very sad and I kept looking through the window at the students who were chosen and were being taught the routine.” 

Enrolled Under Kshemavathy Teacher: She says that after a year or so, her father, who was very close to Pavithran uncle, who was a film director and Kshemavathy teacher’s husband, took me to her classes and enrolled me there. “I remember their faces – talking, laughing, and the teacher who taught youngsters at her school, her name too being, Maidhili, came out gave me a warm, winning smile, that instantly made me her fan and took me in. Kshemavathy teacher, then, in the prime of her performing career would storm in once in a way, and give us a piece of her mind about how we ought to dance along with ‘sit in Aramandalam’ punishments.” The dancer says that she told her mother that she didn’t want to learn dance as there was too much Aramandalam and rather spend an hour without too much strain in a singing class. “But my mother would thankfully hear none of it! I didn’t realize then, that I was fortunate to be initiated into dance by the doyenne of Mohiniyattam, Padma Shri Kalamandalam Kshemavathy,” the artist says.

Mythili says that as was the practice at the time, she started learning Bharatanatyam first, and then Mohiniyattam and then Kuchipudi too. “I continued to perform Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam during my college years. I enjoyed Bharatanatyam too and especially loved the costumes and remember the compliments I got from people,” she recollects. Mythili was fascinated with Kathak and learnt it for three years after making Hyderabad her home. “I was fortunate to reach Mangala Didi (Guru Mangala Bhatt and Raghav Raj Bhatt), a wonderful teacher. And of course, there’s no Aramandalam, which is a huge plus! But, on a more serious note, I love the subtle expressions, and the freeness of the form, which is a direct contrast to the ‘earthward drive in Mohiniyattam,” she says.

Totally Committed: The artist says that she has been totally committed to Mohiniyattam since the past few years. “One life is not enough, and time is limited, so I could not pursue Kathak. However, I feel Kathak has changed the quality of my movements in a very subtle way. I can feel that and see my Mohiniyattam pre-Kathak and post Kathak learning. There is a lightness that comes into the body after learning Kathak, which I have carried over into Mohiniyattam,” she admits.  The dancer states that she is quite fascinated by many dances – some that are recreational such as traditional Balinese dance, Egyptian Belly dance, Lavani, Ghoomar and some ritualistic forms where performers enter trance like Sarpam Thullal. “I want to try sometime, not necessarily for a stage or public performance, but merely for my experience of them,” she adds. 

Mythili, who did her Ph. D. from IIT Bombay under Prof. Milind Malshe says that her guide an expert in linguistics, literature, aesthetics and music, is a truly great teacher and human being. “I owe my Ph. D. and what I have become as an academic entirely to him.” She agrees that IIT B is a premier institute and she enjoyed all the privileges that premier institutes have – great libraries and spaces, a liberal academic environment, brilliant faculty and colleagues, canteens, a beautiful green campus and all the trimmings. “But, a lot of the time, none of these things mattered, because of the stress of a term paper, or the critical comments after an Annual Progress Seminar.” 

Teaches @ UoH: The dance teacher teaches short-term courses at the NIDs or Aesthetics, Semiotics, Material Culture and Soft Skills at UoH. “For me, an opportunity to teach, face a class, and engage them for an hour or more, is no less than a performance: One needs to be prepared, present matters in an interesting manner, gauge responses, be innovative and improvise. I have had great times teaching and I have had brilliant students, students with loads of attitude, students who call me by my first name. I don’t mind any of that, I find it amusing, and I get to learn from them,” says the lady smilingly. 

According to the dancer, it is essential to study dance as a subject. “You can be natural or a protégé, but without the right training in the conventions of performance, without the necessary skills, you cannot be a stage artist,” she says. Reminiscing some memorable performances, she speaks about her performance at Seva Sadan in Bangalore. “My turn was next, but the nieces of a High Court judge were also performing the same day and requested the organiser to shift their performance first, as the judge was in a hurry. I too agreed when the organiser asked me. After their performance, mine commenced and even at the end of my performance the judge who had been in a hurry to leave was still seated in the front row watching my dance, and he greatly appreciated it.” Another instance was in a temple, when she performed Harivarasanam. “An elderly lady came up to me while I was dancing and put a garland on me. I was taken aback for a few seconds as it was very unexpected, but continued.” 

Funny Moment: Recalling a funny moment, Mythili says that after a programme in Chennai, she had to rush to the airport to take a flight back home. “I quickly changed out of my costume and dumped my things in the suitcase and got into the taxi. While I was in the taxi, I undid my hair and removed the makeup using wet-wipes. I reached the airport and went through the drill and found that I had some time before boarding. When I went to the washroom, and saw myself, I was aghast! I looked like a ghost or lunatic with kajal smeared all over, and surprisingly no one had even given me a quizzing or mocking glance until then! Anyway, I got an opportunity to clean up and not land before my kid that way,” she says. 

Before signing off when quizzed on when will the city see the mother-daughter perform, the artist too hopes it will happen sometime soon. “My elder daughter is into visual arts more than dance. That is her calling and I hope she pursues a career in that and finds success in it,” says Mythili. 

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