Methil Devika's 'The Crossover': Bridging dance and inclusivity with innovative sign language choreography

Mohiniyattam exponent Methil Devika speaks to us about blurring the lines between science, art and human communication
In Frame: Methil Devika
In Frame: Methil Devika

There was a trajectory that mudras (hand gestures) took at Ganesham Nataka Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, where well-known danseuse Methil Devika presented her famous choreography The Crossover. The story of Krishna opened out from a source, travelled through gestures and reached an audience that included people with disabilities. A sense of comprehension was writ large on the faces of the spectators at the venue.

The result was apparent in the applause, not just from those who came to watch Devika bring her deep understanding of the vocabulary of dance and the art and philosophy that rules her performances. It also captivated people with disabilities, the deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH), to be specific. She deftly merged Indian Sign Language (ISL) and the hand gestures or mudras that form an important aspect of expression in mohiniyattam.

“It was like a world opening in front of me. We are a group of people left at the fringes of the mainstream with just ramps being made in the name of inclusivity. But while watching The Crossover, we felt a true sense of being included. A cultural space was reaching out to us,” says Krishnakumar P S, who works for people affected by Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

The response was caught well by Devika. The mudras, thus, took a full circle, reaching back to the source and finishing the trajectory. “That is when the wall between me and the people falls. That is where I get the energy for something new,” she says.

Her explorations into the realms of such expressions probably began during the Covid period when Devika found her vistas opening to the dimensions of space. She was dancing in an ancient temple whose architecture had open spaces enhanced by art elements. It brought before her the possibility of how space can be contained in dance or vice versa.

The idea took her to many more possibilities, and several outcomes based on them. Probably, The Crossover is one such outcome. As is her current study on ‘temple terrain as a new performance space for the woman dancer’ being developed as part of the Chief Minister’s Nava Kerala postdoctoral fellowship.

The work on the expression of spaces also led her to ideate a project with the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) as a senior research associate on an arts-integrated science project. For cross-domain study, she worked with the concept of ‘hasthas’ (use of hand gestures in dance) and the science of movement and languages.

The aim was to develop a non-verbal functional application, a la Braille, to be deployed in space and technology-related communication; say among astronauts in a zero-gravity environment, as astronomical signs, and for better learning of scientific principles in classrooms. “It has the potential to be used in several spheres — maritime, space, defence, pedagogy, etc. It could aid human-computer interaction,” she says.

The IIST venture is vast — both the data and the practical prospects of the idea. Same with the case of The Crossover. Yet, she will not stay in both or belong to either of the fields — science or social development of people with disabilities. Her reason is simple.

“I am essentially an artist; my forte is artistic creation. I create frameworks based on my understanding and academic experience in the art of hand gestures for those who can benefit from it. It is a template I develop; they can use it as they want,” Devika says.

References for her projects are varied and vast — from books such as Hasthalakshana Deepika, the bible on mudras, to her findings as part of her PhD on ‘Semiotic Study on Hand Gestures in mohiniyattam’. Over two-and-half-decade-long career as a creator also added to her experience in the philosophy of art; most of her works were productions that literally translated spirituality into movements.

Step after step, her works delved into the technique of movement, untangling how the core consciousness transcends space and time to find the rhythm that keeps nature in action.

Her 28-minute documentary Sarpatatwam (The Serpent Wisdom) was based on these findings, which won her wide acclaim. It became the first-ever Indian classical dance short documentary to enter the contention list of the Academy Awards in 2019.

Sarpatatwam, rooted in the work of the 11th-century mystic Pambatti Siddhar, shows snakes as alert, enigmatic entities that have gripped the attention of several ancient civilisations. The mohiniyattam-based documentary has been one of the most applauded as well as the most copied.

“Most of the time, we create and leave it there for someone to pick it up. Later, when we perform, these very same people would come to claim them. That’s why I want my work to be documented. Anyone can use it, but with due credits,” she says. Many of her works await such documentation.

“My productions go beyond the mere text on which they are based. I try to meditate on them, and that yields several new facets to my choreography,” she says.

Take for example Ahalya (one of her mohiniyattam-based productions) and interpretations of the character in different Ramayanas. “Ezhuthachan sees Ahalya from a socio-cultural space, others throw light on how she was delivered from her inanimate state by Rama. But the source of all interpretations, the Valmiki Ramayana, has a very spiritual take on the whole episode.

How Ahalya’s isolation led to her self-discovery and how Rama found her as an evolved soul so much that he chose to offer respect when he met her. The episode symbolises the potential of the human soul to touch base with its energy source. I bring these thoughts into my productions,” she says, adding that, “anyone using my work has to understand these experiences and not merely replay the choreography, music, or technique”.

As Devika gets deeper into her craft, the lines between the artist and her art seem to erase. “I am a visitor always. Art excites me for the way it interprets energy. For example, the feminine energy is all about ‘lasya’ or sublime grace in mohiniyattam. But this grace has many interpretations. It may mean sensitivity to one, protection to another, and even hunting to someone with another mindset. All this is art, and I am visiting these different facets with my works.”

“Actually, it is not even about creating. It is also about getting to the other side rather than reaching out to it. I experienced this with The Crossover. After a point, it was like, am I bringing them into the ‘inclusive’ zone or am I crossing over? It is like the creator becoming part of the creation,” Devika says.

Several of her works share such an accord, be it Streepeksha, Gopika-Krishna Samvadam, Bramaniyammapattu, Uchchila, etc. Some of them, which blended the ISL with the grammar of mohiniyattam, helped her make The Crossover. But largely, it is her search to find ways art could express nature and energy that set her on an exploration into creating a genre in mohiniyattam (bani in art parlance). “I want it to be handed down over generations,” she says, as she plans to work on the nritta (technique) aspect of mohiniyattam as one of her upcoming projects.

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