A few days ago I sat down to write a post about La Danse De L’Enchanteresse (The Dance of the Enchantress), a French-produced Mohiniattam documentary by the famed Adoor Gopalakrishnan and French Mohiniattam exponent Brigitte Chataignier. I was going to add it to my list of “Obscure Indian Films About Classical Dance” and whine and lament the fact that I would likely never be able to see it and forever be taunted by the trailer and select clips online. While searching for more information on the film I found, to my astonishment, that it has been posted online, full-length, with English subtitles, for free, and at a legitimate source. Really. The source is Culture Unplugged, a website/foundation that among other things hosts online, non-commercial film festivals that jive with its mission of connecting cultures and uniting humanity (and lots of other stuff). The video quality isn’t pristine, but beggars can’t be choosers can we!
The “documentary” is really a meditation on the beauty of Mohiniattam performance. There are no voiceovers, no musical score, and no strict narrative structure. The script is not concerned with intellectual analysis or historical lecture; one sees mostly pure presentation of artists relishing in their art and the way it makes them feel, a visceral ode to the peace and grace of a dance form inspired by its lush home and people of Kerala. The human yearning for beauty and oneness with the beyond takes center stage here in the form of dance scenes, each floating along the film's progression with a languid and leisurely pace, the camera often remaining motionless and true-to-life. Every so often, a short clip of lush scenery or earthy architecture punctuates a transition.
A wide variety of dancers, gurus, and locations are featured in the film. The dance segments range from informal practice scenes directed by gurus to performances in full costume by a solo artist or a group, all shot in varying distances, lighting, and atmosphere. Beyond the sounds of dance music and vocalized rhythmic syllables, only the sounds of nature remain, the soft chirpings of birds or the gentle pitter-patter of rain drops most prominent. The overwhelming feeling I had while watching the dances was an all-enveloping serenity and calm. Time seemed to stop as I watched what transpired on the screen. An experience of the divine, perhaps. This aspect of the film completely took me by surprise and is its greatest strength.
The subject of why humans enjoy practicing and gazing at coordinated movement and music has been studied, but on a gut level it’s clear. We feel joy and immense satisfaction, even fulfillment, when viewing a skilled performance of grace and rhythm. This film exemplifies this desire and its realization through the enchanted dance form, Mohiniattam. The viewer needs no previous knowledge or experience to understand the shared human longing the film gloriously highlights.
Every so often, a shot of a dancer staring over a lake or into the rain is lingered on for a few moments. The atmosphere is eerily quiet, the dancer completely isolated with only the sounds of the environment to keep her company; they seem to highlight the docile lives of the dancers and their propensity for moments of reflection. Perhaps these dancers are pondering the existential questions in life and their desire to seek something greater than themselves.
This existentialism was further explored in a stunning montage of gurus demonstrating for their students the emotions of the lyrics, "In this vast sea of worldly suffering, to us caught in its waves, you are the redeemer, Oh Lord!" Kalamandalam Kshemavathy’s performance is particularly stunning and made me feel chills! The other performance in the film that stunned me was the very last performance right before the screen fades to black and the credits roll; simply gorgeous.
Parallel to the presentation of dance scenes are short sequences highlighting the dancer’s assumed lives in Kerala. Many of them are placed directly before or after a dance practice or performance piece and are clearly meant to mimic life, whether the beauty preparations of a young girl mirrored in the dance of a woman readying herself in anticipation of her lover, or in the actions of a dancer lovingly swinging her infant, the baby's cries lingering from the previous scene of a young woman gazing out into the rain at night and suddenly hearing the cries of a sibling. Other sequences are inspired by the everyday mundanity of the dancers and musicians; a ride on a crowded bus, an auto ride cluttered by the sounds of honking horns and raunchy film music, or the noises of utensils and sizzling breads against cookware as a mother prepares dinner. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. At times the dancers find their performances echoing their life experiences, but in others the dance is a sanctuary from daily life and is removed from all its practicalities.
I found myself wondering if the slow pace of life presented in the film was supposed to be true to current experience or a deliberate nostalgic reference to a time in the past. According to an interview with Brigitte at this great review of the film at the Sacred Space blog, it appears to be the latter. Brigitte comments that she and Adoor "wanted to bring out the essence of Mohiniattam while also capturing a certain time period in India, a time which is quickly disappearing."
Many famous Mohiniattam gurus are featured in the film. I took the opportunity to use the credits to match each face with a name:
Sreedevi Rajan (daughter of the 'grandmother of Mohiniattam', Kalyani Kuttiyamma)
The film also features some well-known Mohiniattam dancers like Smitha Rajan (daughter of Sreedevi Rajan), Dr. Neena Prasad, Pallavi Krishnan, Usha Balaji, and other up and coming artists
To add to the sumptuous cinematography, many beautiful locations are utilized in the film. In this article from The Hindu, Adoor notes, "It was Maharaja Swati Tirunal who revived Mohiniyattom and other art forms at a time when they were fading into oblivion. And coming down to later generations, the credit should go to Mahakavi Vallathol. Considering this aspect, we have chosen palaces and places where their memories still linger." The credits list the following locations: Kerala Kalamandalam, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Kuthiramalika Palace, Koodalattupurathu Mana, Karippala Mana, Palunkil Sivanarayana Temple, and Tiruvattar Temple. The screencap below apparently is an iconic image of the Kerala Kalamandalam. I love how so many of Kerala's famed buildings and institutions have a low-key, earthy beauty to them. They are beautiful without being indulgences in excess and extravagance.
The film also serves as a nice introduction to the music of Mohiniattam and Kerala. I’m completely ignorant of carnatic music and its intricacies, but I could certainly hear clear variations from other classical dance music such as the drawn-out singing style and the use of Kerala-specific percussion. Due to the slow pace of Mohiniattam, the bells on the dancers feet serve more to match her steps with the gentle rhythms and have their own charm even though they don’t create rhythmic flourishes like in Bharatanatyam.
I did find some faults with the film. Some of the dances wore on me a bit due to their presentation. In a few performances, the camera was held so far away or the lighting kept so low that I could not see the dancers face or even clearly make out the details of the performance. Surely this was done deliberately, but it wasn’t clear to me why.
I also found myself wanting a bit more narrative and realism. Most of the real-life scenes are clearly contrived and staged as to produce a certain aesthetic. It's certainly beautiful, but quite romanticized. I suppose my expectation that the film would be following the real lives of dancers set me up to be slightly disappointed in this aspect.
Compagnie Prana. She approached Adoor Gopalakrishnan to help her write the script for and direct Dance of the Enchantress, and she helped secure its funding and production company. By most accounts I've read it seems that Adoor largely shaped the final layout of the film, but Brigitte was its inspiration and support. I wish I could read much more about her, but I suspect most of it is in French and hidden from my googlefu. I assume that she dances in the film of her creation, but I couldn't see any of the dancers clearly enough to make an ID. The image to the left (from her company's website) made me think she was the dancer around 36 minutes in, but it's only the background that matches, not the dancer.
I'm thrilled to have had the pleasure of watching such a nuanced and powerful piece of art. Since my original viewing, I've gone back and rewatched certain segments many times. Whenever I need a moment of calm or find myself stressed, I will play this film and feel all of my concerns melt away into oblivion as the dance of the enchantress seduces my senses, and, my self.
Online Film Stream: Culture Unplugged
DVD (Region 2 Only): At Amazon.fr
Film Reviews and Features: Upper Stall, Sacred Space Blog, The Hindu
Brigitte's Dance School Compagnie Prana Website and Daily Motion Channel
Kerala Kalamandalam Website