Tradition and Transformation in Mohiniyattam Dance: An Ethnographic History demonstrates how Mohiniyattam, a form previously stigmatized, was reinvented as a sign of traditional Keralite womanhood. The book traces how the emergence of Mohiniyattam as a traditional form of dance based on a feminine aesthetic was synchronistic with the outlawing of polyandrous marriage practices and devadasi practices, as well as changes in matrilineal inheritance and the outlawing of and reforms in women’s dress customs in Kerala, India. These layers of history and cultural meaning permitted Mohiniyattam’s renaissance as a sign of female grace and tradition. Throughout, Lemos argues that practicing and learning movement is a gateway to understanding a system of semiosis. Danced movement itself can be a locust, a bellwether, and even an agent of social change.
Justine Lemos holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Riverside.
Chapter One: Dancing Decadence: Mohiniyattam Stigmatization and Sambandham Reform
Chapter Two: Re-formed Movements: Mohiniyattam Stigmatization and Devadasi Outlaw
Chapter Three: Heart-Throbbing Aattam: The Vocabulary and Context of 19th Century Mohiniyattam
Chapter Four: The Lasya Complex
Tradition and Transformation in Mohiniyattam Dance tells the story of how being and knowing are embodied in the exclusively feminine classical dance tradition of Kerala, India. Lemos’ employment of C.S. Peirce’s “semeiotic” illuminates the movement culture of Mohiniyattam as a multi-faceted sphere of continuous meaning-making, exhibiting interpretive properties that move far beyond imitative modalities in complexity and sophistication. Deeply informed by decades of intensive study and performance, as well as oral historical research with master artists, Tradition and Transformation harkens back to Cynthia Novack’s classic historical ethnography, Sharing the Dance, weaving together themes manifest in both the “micro” patterning of body movement processes and the “macro” movements of historical and cultural change. The study merits a noteworthy place in the tradition of semiotic anthropology alongside such works as E. Valentine Daniel’s Fluid Signs, J. Lowell Lewis’ Ring of Liberation, and Diane Mines’ Fierce Gods.
Lemos’ detailed monograph explores how Mohiniyattam dance both reflects and propels cultural change in Kerala. Through her active practice of the dance form, Lemos captures both the method and meaning of Mohiniyattam as it engages the history of Keralite womanhood from the 19th to 20th centuries. In so doing, she deftly reveals how full embodiment of the dance constitutes necessary and invaluable research.
Mohiniyattam, the exclusive female dance heritage of Kerala, South India, had been sandwiched between Kutiyattam, the highly evolved Sanskrit theatre tradition and Kathakali, the classical dance drama, till the early 1980’s. Since then it has been registering consistent progress in terms of full fledged onstage performances. But when it comes to academic deliberations, Mohiniyattam comes across several formidable obstacles mainly on account of its rather dubious history. Except for a well-researched essay by Betty True Jones in the 1970’s, almost all the other written materials on the dance-form concerned are either descriptive or derivative. In this context, Justine Lemos’ work on Mohiniyattam reaffirms its relevance in the areas of pedagogical discourse and aesthetic negotiations. Her profound analysis of the semantics and the semiotics of the dance-form based on an insightful historical reasoning interspersed with empirical evidence and theoretical perceptions are laudable to say the least. For all those involved in and fascinated by the cultural and artistic practices of South and Southeast Asia, this book is sure to be a prized possession.
Lemos' immersion in Mohiniyattam as a practitioner, the rich documentation of oral sources which would have been lost to time, and the investigation of archival material hitherto not unassessed has led to one of the most authentic and nuanced accounts of the modern history of Mohiniyattam. Her interpretations of the dance's perceived decline and revival in the context of societal changes in attitudes towards women afford many insights omitted by native scholars. Lemos’s work extends and brings into culmination Betty True Jones’s pioneering ethnographic study of the dance and merits a place in a list of essential readings on Mohiniyattam.