From Yokohama to Kochi: The story of a 70-yr-old Japanese dancer’s heartfelt Mohiniyattam performance

The affection and love that Hisayo Watanabe holds for the authentic Kerala dance form brought her to Kochi over three decades ago from Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan, where she was working as a librarian attached to a Buddhist temple.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi | Published: November 21, 2017 1:00 pm
Mohiniyattam dance, Hisayo Mohiniyattam dance, indian classical dance abroad, classical dance in Japan, indian express, indian express news Dressed in the traditional off-white Kerala sari with golden brocade and simple jewellery, Hisayo first prostrated in front of a Nataraja statue before moving on. (Source: Vishnu Varma)

At a certain point on Monday evening, it really seemed like the ‘thulavarsham’ (the north-eastern monsoon of Kerala), infamous for its abrupt beginning and marked by booming thunder and frightening flashes of lightning, would ruin the setting. As the heavy raindrops pounded on the asbestos roof and curtains went flying in the strong winds, the small audience in the hall was a bit perturbed, looking around as the weather changed drastically for the worse in a matter of minutes. But in the centre of the hall, completely oblivious to the storm was 70-year-old Hisayo Watanabe, who went about swaying her body and perfecting her ‘mudras’ to the accompaniment of the Carnatic vocals. For she wanted no obstacles to come in the way of her dream solo Mohiniyattam performance, a sort of ‘guru-dakshina’ to her late teacher Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, widely considered a doyen of the dance-form.

The affection and love that Hisayo holds for the authentic Kerala dance form brought her to Kochi over three decades ago from Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan, where she was working as a librarian attached to a Buddhist temple. Her tryst with the dance-form began after she happened to catch a performance of Deepti Omcherry Bhalla in the late 1980s in Tokyo. The unique ‘lasya’ bhava of Mohiniyattam captured her mind and took her first to Delhi and then to Thripunithura near Kochi, where she was introduced to Kalyanikutty Amma. Since then, she has not broken an annual tradition to come to Kerala and practise the dance form under her teachers.

Source: Vishnu Varma Source: Vishnu Varma

“My mother loved her. She had many foreigner students who came and left. But Hisayo would come every year. She has a lot of love for Mohiniyattam,” said Sreedevi Rajan, the daughter of Kalyanikutty Amma, who is a proponent of the dance form herself.

In fact, Hisayo has the distinction of mastering the dance from three generations of the same family – first from Kalyanikutty Amma, then her daughter Sreedevi Rajan and now her grand-daughters Smitha Rajan and Sandhya Rajan.

But teaching Hisayo, who cannot speak English or Malayalam, was by no means an easy task.

“It is very difficult to learn an art without knowing the language. Initially, she did not know the culture, our Vedas or the history. But through a lot of hard work and determination, she has persevered. Today, she is 70. Think about it,” Sreedevi Rajan told the audience before Hisayo took the stage.

Source: Vishnu Varma Source: Vishnu Varma

On Monday evening, a seemingly nervous but excited Hisayo appeared from behind the curtains for her performance with a live orchestra on her guru’s home turf. Sitting in a corner and silently videotaping the act on a cam-corder was her husband Tateo Watanabe. It was the common love for India and particularly Kerala that brought Tateo and Hisayo closer together.

Dressed in the traditional off-white Kerala sari with golden brocade and simple jewellery, Hisayo first prostrated in front of a Nataraja statue before moving on to take the blessings of Sreedevi Rajan, who also plays the Ilathalam (a mini-cymbal). With the accompaniment of mridangam (percussion), flute and idakka (percussion), the Japanese septuagenarian began her act with prayers to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Saraswathi. Hisayo then launched herself into ‘jathiswaram’ in the chenchurutti raga, tapping her feet firmly and striking her postures in the distinctly feminine ‘lasya’ bhava of Mohiniyattam.

Sure, there were moments in between when the shiver of her legs or especially the one-legged postures gave her age away. But they are pardonable when one realises how far Hisayo has come to dominate the art form she attaches herself to so closely.

It was the final ‘Ramasaptha’ act that brought the best in Hisayo on Monday. The composition describes in detail the turn of events in the Ramayana starting from Lord Ram’s ascension to the throne in Ayodhya, his overpowering of Shiva’s bow, the subsequent Ram-Sita marriage to the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana and the final victory in the battle in Lanka.

As soon as the vocalist began, Hisayo immersed herself in the act, sometimes even mouthing some of the lyrics. Her expressions, especially with the eyes, were flawless when she recreated the scene where several people, before Lord Ram, attempt to break Lord Shiva’s ‘Trayambaka’ bow in a bid to marry Sita. With gentle hand movements and sensual swaying of the body, Hisayo was able to capture the crowd’s attention even as a violent storm raged outside the hall. There was not a single moment when she seemed to forget her steps; her feet in perfect sync with the beats of the mridangam.

It was in the final moments of the act, portraying Lord Ram’s union with Sita after the battle in Lanka, that Hisayo felt overwhelmed and turned emotional. Her eyeliner streaming down her cheeks, Hisayo concluded her performance on an emotional note as she covered her face in her hands, very visibly overtaken by sentiments and possibly with the satisfaction that she was able to deliver a fitting ‘guru-dakshina’ to her late teacher. She was given a standing ovation with the hall rent with applause.

‘This was the fulfilment of her life’s desire. She wanted to do this for a long time. She is celebrating it,” said Sreedevi Rajan after the act.

There wasn’t much Hisayo could say about her act. “I cried because I am so happy,” an emotional Hisayo told IndianExpress.com, minutes after her act. “This is a feeling from the heart.”

There were several teary-eyed faces in the audience too. “You are an inspiration to students,” a young girl in the audience told the Japanese dancer.

In a few days, Hisayo and her husband would return for their island home, back to her students, some of whom are Indian, learning Mohiniyattom from her. She is also in the process of learning Sanskrit to better understand the lyrics of the compositions that define the dance form. But she promises to be back, to a distant land away from home that gave her a passion to live for.

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