Many of the dance forms in India have their origin from the tradition of temple dancers known as Devadasis. Mohiniyattam is also the renewed form of this dance.
The striking features of this dance form are the musical melody and rhythmical swaying of the dancer from side to side and the smooth and unbroken flow of the body movement. The dance is focused on feminine moods and emotions.
There is the well known puranic story of Lord Vishnu taking on the guise of ‘Mohini’ to enthrall people both in connection with the churning of the milk-ocean and with the episode of the slaying of Bhasmasura. In the Bhasmasura story, ‘Mohini’ toward the end of her dance, persuade the Asura to place his own finger on his head unwittingly to his own undoing. This episode seems to be picturesquely represented in the first item of the Mohiniyattam called ‘Cholkkettu’ which begins with a pose of the dancer displaying her right hand, the murder of ‘Suchimukha’ with her first finger pointing to her head. So Vaishnava devotees have take the name and called it Mohiniyattam. Cholkkettu was also considered to be a dance pattern scattered to Lord Siva. There is a sloka in praise of Siva towards the end of the test used for Cholkkettu in Mohiniyattam.
Once Mohiniyattam was performed only in the premises of Temples and Royal courts. The first reference to Mohiniyattam is found in 'Vyavaharamala' composed by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri, of 16th century AD. Major contributions to this art form were given by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, Irayimman Thampi and Kuttikunju Thankachi.
After Swathi Thirunal's period there was a downfall of Mohiniyattam. It somehow degenerated into eroticism to satisfy the Epicurean life of a few provincial sacred landlords. The renowned Malayalam poet Vallathol Narayana Menon gave it a status in modern times through Kerala Kalamandalam, now a Deemed University which is presently doing its best for the development and popularity of Mohiniyattam.
Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma (wife of famous Kathakali artist, late Padmashree Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair) and Chinnammu Amma are well known Mohiniyattam performers. Among the present day artists Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, Kalamandalam Kshemavathi, Bharathi Shivaji, Kanak Rele, Sunanda Nair etc. are well known artists. Smt. Kanak Rele deserves a special mention as she is not a Malayalee. She has established a Nritya Mahavidyalaya in Mumbai to promote Mohiniyattam along with other dance forms.
Most of the component items of Mohiniyattam are similar to Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi, though subtle differences of style are obvious. The language used in the lyrics is a pleasant mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit, known as Manipravalam. Formerly, the Padams were especially composed to include only Sringararasa. Presently artists are using any classical or semi-classical compositions, even from other languages. The real beauty of Mohiniyattam comes through only when mature ladies enact the romantic padams specially written to present the Ashta Nayikas: Swadheena Bharthruka, Khanditha, Abhisarika, Vipralabdha, Kalahandtharitha, Vasakasajja, Proshithabharthruka, Viraholkhanditha.