Art
Hisayo fell so in love with Mohiniyattam after watching a performance that she packed her bags and travelled to Kerala to learn the art.
Photograph by Sreeraj T

When age is just a number, your passion can lead you down some surprising roads. There are few better examples of that than Hisayo Tateo Watanabe.

Earlier this month, the 70-year-old from Yokohama in Japan gave her first public solo Mohiniyattam performance to live music in Kochi. It was a dream come true for her, and the culmination of an artistic journey of over two decades.

Hisayo, who worked as a librarian in Japan, first fell in love with the dance form after watching a performance by the noted Indian Mohiniyattam dancer Deepti Omchery Bhalla in Tokyo over 20 years ago.

In fact, so captivated was she that she would soon pack her bags and fly to India to train under Deepti in Delhi. After Deepti's return from Tokyo, Hisayo spent a month with her learning the basics of Mohiniyattam.

A professor of Music at Delhi University, Deepti remembers Hisayo as a very sincere and dedicated student.

"Before moving here, she did her groundwork on the subject. She had some basic understanding about the theoretical aspects of Mohiniyattam. Whatever I taught, Hisayo would take it very seriously. She would always come to class well-practiced. I didn't have to put too much effort in teaching her the movements," Deepti tells TNM.

One of the big challenges that Hisayo had to overcome, though, was facial expression, which is central to the dance form. "That is something I found she had to work a little more on. Other than that, even considering her age, her body was very agile," Deepthi adds.

Hisayo's next guru was Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, a legendary Mohiniyattam artist from Kerala, of whom Deepti is also a disciple.

Over the next several years, Hisayo would regularly visit India in her quest to refine her dancing.

After Kalyanikutty Amma passed away in 1999, Hisayo went on to train under her daughter, Sreedevi Rajan, and granddaughters, Smitha Rajan and Sandhya Rajan.

What’s most remarkable about Hisayo’s learning experience is that, unlike several other foreign students that the family has taught, Hisayo did not know any English.

"So it was very, very difficult for her to communicate," says Smitha. "When in class, we communicated through mudras. She was also a really hardworking student. She bought a dictionary to translate whatever she heard to Japanese. She would write down the lyrics, translate it to Japanese and made an attempt to really understand the whole thing before presenting it."

Around 10 years ago, Hisayo wed Watanabe Tateo, a writer and illustrator, who began accompanying her to her India trips. This made communication "a little more easier" as Watanabe can speak English.

Subsequently, Hisayo also began teaching Mohinyattam, though not professionally, to close friends and family in Japan.

Her performance on November 20 was something she had looked forward to for a long time. "There is nothing like dancing to live music, which is possible only in Kerala. That is why I have to visit Kerala," she told The Times of India.

Performing to live music was, however, relatively new to Hisayo.

"She has rarely danced for a live orchestra. The last time was in 2007, when she along with several of ammamma's (her grandmother) students did a guru pranamam (tribute to the guru) for her. This time we could see how emotional she became. She had been talking about this dream of her's for long. We never thought she could make it to the stage considering her age and everything," Smitha recounts.

 
Mohiniyattam by Hisayo Watanabe (Japan)

Breaking the barriers - 70 yr old Hisayo Watanabe from Japan performing Mohiniyattam, Kerala’s own classical dance.

Posted by Kerala Tourism on Monday, 20 November 2017

An emotional Hisayo gave a performance that made her teachers proud, says Smitha.

"When we were young, we used to get older students, like those of our mother's age. But the thing about Hisayo was that – unlike the other students who joined and after some years would stop, considering their age or difficulty in coming to India – she kept on dancing. When we asked her this time what she wants to do next, she said 'I want to come back and perform on my 80th birthday," Smitha says.   

All photographs by Sreeraj T