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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 1
- Tapati Chowdhurie

September 27, 2021

In my days of innocence I did not fully comprehend the greatness of my guru. Realization came to me as I matured. Guruji had prepared me to be a lover of the aesthetics of dance. I realized it more fully when I started writing on dance. I regret that as a writer on dance I had not taken his interview before he left his mortal body on October 9, 1987. I had missed the bus. However I took the help of his autobiography in Malayalam to get an insight into the making of a guru.

Babita Nair helped me with the English translation, which I have used in my imaginary interview of my Guru-Master.

Master, under what circumstances did you meet the American born dancer Esther Luella Sherman - known as Ragini Devi?
While I was a trainee in Kalamandalam, during the first week of October 1931, a woman from America, the famous dancer Ragini Devi arrived with Art writer G Venkitachalam. At that time, Guru Kunju Kurupp Asan was teaching mukha abhinayam (facial expressions) to us - i.e myself, Madhavan, Sivaraman, Kelu Nair, Krishnan Nair etc. According to the instructions of Mukundaraja, each of us performed one of the Navarasas for Ragini Devi and Venkitachalam. I performed sringaram and roudram rasas. Once the Navarasa abhinaya was over, Ragini Devi enquired from Mukundaraja about my age and my practise period; he translated her question in Malayalam for me. I had just crossed 23 with 11 years of training (both in the Northern and Southern style) of Kathakali.

When did you get the invitation to join Ragini Devi in Bombay?
Ragini Devi and G. Venkitachalam had rented a house for 3 weeks near Kalamandalam. Ragini Devi learnt Kathakali mudras, mukha bhavam, stories from Kunju Kurupp Asan and Narayanan Nair Asan. They also used to observe other students practise in the Kalari daily. Sometimes, if it was night, I was given the responsibility by Mukundaraja to drop Ragini Devi and Venkitachalam from Kalamandalam at their place. One such night when we were on our way to their abode, Venkitachalam asked me, "Gopi, could you go to Bombay and teach Kathakali?" I replied, "Sure". After that, they stayed there for a week more. Before leaving for Bombay, Ragini Devi requested Vallathol and Mukundaraja to send Madhava Warrier who plays maddalam and me to Bombay for a year. They both agreed to this request.

What was awaiting you in Bombay?
In the next 10 days after Ragini Devi reached Bombay, she sent a money order to Mukundaraja to book tickets for Madhava Warrier and me. The next day we were informed and given money to get ready to leave. We boarded the train to Bombay. We reached Victoria terminus and Ragini Devi received us at the station. She took us to the place where we were to stay. Our meals were also arranged for in a Malayali hotel near our place of stay. We were given a room in the bungalow of Ragini Devi. On the third day we were informed of our fixed training time from 9am to 11:30am and again from 3pm to 5pm. Accordingly, in the morning we started training the dancers of Ragini Devi's troupe with Anga Vinyasas and in the evening Mudra Abhinaya and abhinaya of some Cholliyattam Padams.

Guru Gopinath

When did you change your name to Gopinath? Did you also bring about other changes in your lifestyle?
When I came to Bombay, my dress code was a single khaddar dhoti and half sleeve shirt with cropped hair. My name was Gopinathan Pillai, but later as per the wish of Ragini Devi, I started growing my hair and abandoned the 'Pillai' title. Instead of khaddar mundu-dhoti and half sleeve shirt, I started wearing mill dhoti and dhaka cotton jibbas-Punjabi kurta. Money for these clothes was provided by Ragini Devi.

Since these were path-breaking times when Kathakali was performed outside Kerala, could you throw some light on it?
In two weeks after learning some basics of Kathakali, Ragini Devi started forming a group for dance performances. Apart from maddalam Madhava Warrier, fiddle player Kollamkotta Vishwanth Bhagavathar (famous Carnatic singer K.V. Narayanaswamy's father), flautist Subramaniya Iyer, tabla artist Mohammad Chhavi, sarangi player Muhammad Jaan were brought together as the background musicians for dance. An Anglo-Indian Kathak dancer Aasuri was also included in the group. I was selected as the co-dancer of Ragini Devi. The only English word I knew at that time was 'dance'.

The repertoire decided upon to be performed was Radha Krishnna dance, Jathiswaram, Kathak dance, Hunter dance, Marwari dance, Garuda dance, Naagini dance and Shiva Parvati. So the rehearsals began. It was decided that Radha Krishna and Shiva Parvati dance would be performed by Ragini Devi and me and Hunter dance and Garuda dance would be my solo pieces. We took some lines from Geeta Govindam by Jayadeva for Radha Krishna dance and Shiva and Sati's first scene from Daksha Yagam for Shiva Parvati dance, some portions of Vanavarnana in Kathakali for Hunter dance, and Garuda dance from the Garudan Thookkam, which is performed as an offering (vazhipaadu) in Mithrakary temple. Ragini Devi played the main role in coordinating and bringing together all these dances, accompanied with background scores.

Vishwanath Bhagavathar and Madhava Warrier helped in the musical compositions. I had to compose the physical movements with adavus from Kathakali according to the music. In Kathakali, the theermanam is never less than 8 counts in an avarthanam, but in dance the theermanam could be 3 quarter, half or quarter avartanam. With the help of Madhava Warrier and Vishwanatha Bhagavathar, I selected and chose few theermanams from Kathakali according to the taalam and counts. We rehearsed this for 1 month and prepared a two hour long cultural programme. I had no knowledge about the makeup and costume of the characters for the programme. Ragini Devi decided that for the character of Krishna, the costume, ornaments and crown of Krishna would be according to the northern style. And for Shiva we used the crown that I had taken with me. Ragini Devi decided that a specially stitched tiger skin costume would be used as a costume for Shiva. For hunter dance, pashi garland, headband and costume was used and for Garuda dance two big wings, knee length feather socks and a small crown was used. These were all fixed and decided by Ragini Devi. I also ordered for a beak for the Garuda from my hometown. The program date was fixed as Dec 12th and 13th in the year 1931. Venue was Bombay Opera House. "Classical and Kathakali dance by Ragini Devi and Gopinath and Party" was the headline of the advertisement. On 10th Dec 1931, some reporters and well wishers were invited and we did a dress rehearsal of some scenes from the actual programme that was to be performed on 12th December.

After the press conference all of you accompanied by Ragini Devi had gone to Taj Mahal Hotel for lunch. Please tell us about this experience.
It was the first time in my life that I was seeing and going to a Western style posh hotel. All others except me were in European clothes. Women were in sarees. I was surprised by the clothes that were worn by the waiters - crown like hat, belt, diagonal belt with a sling over the shoulder and chest, white coat, pants, gloves and golden coloured shoes. I wondered if they were servers of a palace, who serves the king and were going to serve us in the hotel. But later I understood that their responsibility was only to place the cutlery and plates on the table. Later they also brought food to the table in perfect order - starting with soup. We had to serve ourselves and they kept bringing the next order one after the other. Having the soup was not difficult for me. During my childhood days, I used to have plenty of rice porridge, so it was not difficult to have it fast using a spoon. The people sitting opposite me and next to me all started having the main dish using spoon and fork. And I was only used to having my food using my fingers mixing the curry with the rice and eating. And I guessed that it would be inappropriate to use fingers to mix food here. Hence I also took a spoon. I served myself a few spoons of rice from the bowl in front of me into my plate. Then, I also served a few pieces of chicken and gravy from the chicken bowl and mixed the contents in my plate. Then, out of greed I took the chicken bowl to my mouth, but it fell inside the sleeve of my shirt. Immediately, without anyone noticing I kept the spoon in my plate with my right hand and the gravy started dripping from the sleeve at my elbow. I was careful to see that it did not fall on my dhoti and hence kept my elbow a little away from my body.

Then I took the fork with my left hand and started piercing hard on the slices of tomato, cucumber and some leaves and started eating them one by one. I then kept drinking water and somehow spent 1.5 hours. The rest of them completed their meals according to western discipline and were having an after lunch conversation. Soon we all got up and I kept my right hand folded and started walking behind them. Before climbing down the staircase, I stretched my hand straight and threw the chicken pieces. While returning to the bungalow in the car with Ragini Devi, I got down in front of the Malayali hotel and had plenty of food before reaching home. When asked why I got down in front of the hotel, I had to say that "I did not much like the food in the Taj Mahal Hotel." Later, whenever I used to have western food, I always recollected this incident. Slowly, I also became used to that food. But I did not discuss about the blunder that happened on that day even to my roommate Madhava Warrier.

Guru Gopinath & Ragini Devi

From Kathakali stage to the dance stage
Year 1931, 12th Dec, by 4pm we reached the Opera House dressing room. After Ragini Devi instructed me about how to wear my costumes, she took me to the stage and showed me the exact place to enter, perform and exit from the stage during the evening performance. According to her instructions, I applied pancake, powder, painted my eyes and eyebrows, applied tilak on my forehead and red colour to my lips. Next, I wore the yellow costume (Peethambaram) and other ornaments and Vanamala (colourful garland) and wore the crown with a peacock feather. When I looked at myself I looked exactly like the calendar picture of North Indian Lord Krishna. I was satisfied with my vesham. I was worried if the audience would like if I pray on the stage.

I prayed intensely to Mookambika Devi and entered the stage. I stood in the pose of Lord Krishna by standing on left leg and crossing the right leg as in Swastikam and holding my hands in the flute mudra. I then played with my fingers to the Bilahari ragam on flute. I moved one of my eyebrows while playing the flute and immediately the audience clapped and cheered. Later, Ragini Devi entered the stage as Radha and we danced and did an abhinaya piece on Dikshithar's keerthanam "Balagopala Paalayashumam." After that I performed a Padam from Geeta Govindam by reciting it - Kisalaya sayana tale kuru kamini. Then we danced and did kummi (jump and clap) to a song called 'Devadhi devanadi...' and we hugged each other with extreme joy and left the stage. The audience kept clapping for a long duration even after we left.

Next, Aasuri performed Kathak and Ragini Devi performed Bhairavi Jathiswaram and I did Hunter dance one after the other according to the order. In the end was the Shiva Parvati dance by Ragini Devi and me. The hall was jam packed that day. We could figure out from the claps and enthusiasm that everyone was loving our performances. Many people came to the dressing room as well to congratulate us for the performance and some took photographs together with us. I still remember one Dr. P.G. Pillai among them - a very famous doctor in Bombay - who congratulated us. The very next day, the newspaper had photos and a report of our program in big fonts. Ragini Devi showed me and Madhava Warrier the newspaper reports. That time I could barely read the big headlines in English!

All parts of the interview

Tapati Chowdhurie trained under Guru Gopinath in Madras and was briefly with International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi. Presently, she is a freelance writer on the performing arts.

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