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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 2
- Tapati Chowdhurie

October 10, 2021

The following is the gist of what I wrote in the first part of my imaginary interview of Guru Gopinath.

(My master Guru Gopinath had prepared me to be a lover of the aesthetics of dance. I realized it more fully when I started writing on dance. I had not taken his interview before he left his mortal body on October 9, 1987. 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. In my first interview I elucidated answers on when he met Esther Luella Sherman known as Ragini Devi, when he was invited to join her in Bombay, what happened in Bombay, and how he entered the dance stage from the Kathakali stage.)

All parts of the interview

Guru Gopinath

Since you were not conversant with the English language what was the language of communication between you and Ragini Devi?
In my conversations with Ragini Devi, I used broken English, Sanskrit, Malayalam and Hindi, profusely using the two English words 'yes' and 'no'. And if that didn't help, I used hand gestures to communicate with her. Madhava Warrier and I were curious to know the content of the English newspaper reports about our performance in the Opera House on December 12th and hence we requested Ragini Devi to read these reports to us. She read it out. But we understood only a few words.

How did the audience react to your performances?
On Dec 13th, we repeated our Opera House programme. We had more audience on the13th than the previous day. The audience cheered and clapped enthusiastically after each and every scene. The newspapers next day praised our performance.

Masterji, I have heard that your performances in Bombay were the first time that Kathakali dance was showcased outside Kerala. What is the truth of the statement?
Kathakali was never before performed outside Kerala. Kathakali dance was new to the people in Bombay. Reporter Subramanya Iyer had dedicated a full page in Bombay Chronicles, a daily newspaper, praising and describing Kathakali dance and 'young Gopinath'. Ragini Devi gave me a copy of the newspaper for my safe keeping. I took another newspaper cutting of the same page and sent it with my letter to Mukundaraja detailing about the recent developments in our performances.

Master, what was unique about your performance in Bombay?
What the people of Bombay, including the Malayalis, liked most about our programme was that they had never seen a dance performance, where mudras were used or angika abhinaya was used in sync with musical instruments. In those days, duet performances relating a story were never performed. Solo recitals ruled the roost. The audience developed an avid interest in Kathakali. With the blessings of Mookambika Devi, the contributions of Madhava Warrier and Kollamkottu Vishwanatha Bhagvathar and by following the instructions of Ragini Devi, I came to be known as an "Indian dancer". Their names are etched in my memory forever.

How did you overcome the language barrier and gain proficiency in the English language in such a short time span?
I seriously went about training myself in the English language. I ordered a book from Kollam of S.T. Reddyar named 'English Bhashasahayi' (Help with the English language). Whenever I managed to get some time I started learning the language from A to Z. In two months time my basic education in the English language enabled me to speak to Ragini Devi. I could read and understand good reviews about our performances in Bombay newspapers.

What benefits did you receive as a result of these good reviews?
Favourable reviews brought us invites from different cities of India like Surat, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Amaravati, Gwalior, Jhansi, Delhi, Meerut, Muradabad, Lucknow, Banaras, Allahabad, Patna, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Karseong, Menzing and Dhaka to perform. We travelled to North India, Bihar, Bengal and performed innumerable times. We danced in the important universities of these cities.

How did you get across to people outside Kerala about Kathakali, which they had never seen?
Ragini Devi was able to deliver lectures in English on Kathakali, while I demonstrated the Navarasa bhava abhinaya and mudra viniyogas. In this way we got the opportunity to introduce Kathakali to people outside Kerala and Kerala Kalamandalam. The steps of Kathakali, its jumps, turns, usage of mudras, mukha abhinayam, choosing of veshams (characters) according to the character, story and situations, were all demonstrated and discussed with audiences wherever we went. We told audiences that the designs of ornaments and costumes were crafted by analysing old sculptures and paintings. No one in the audience had an experience of a dance and dance drama where the dancers were dressed up like us. We were able to present Kathakali dance as something special and innovative.

What attracted you to learn Mohiniattam?
Mridangam player Shivaram Iyer - son of the famed maddalam player Venkichhan Swamy - had told me that Kalamandalam had started Mohiniattam classes and a very beautiful girl was training in Mohiniattam under Mankara Kalyaniamma. This information fired my interest. I enquired about the beautiful girl's name, age and the place she came from and decided then and there that I would marry her. On returning to Kerala, I went to the place where Kalyaniamma and Thangamani stayed to learn Mohiniattam. Ragini Devi and I trained under Kalyaniamma for a few days.

I along with Ragini Devi and her group with mridangist Shivaram Iyer were to go for a programme to Calcutta. After about a month, Ragini Devi left for Bombay to form a troupe leaving Indrani - her daughter - to stay with me. I continued going to Kalyaniamma's place to learn Mohiniattam for another 15 days not merely for the love of Mohiniattam, but because I wanted to see Thangamani performing Mohiniattam gracefully, which was a pure delight to my eyes.

Guru Gopinath

How did you connect to the Maharaja and Queen Mother of Travancore?
Before I could go to Calcutta, I got an invitation from G.P. Shekhar from Trivandrum. He requested me to perform in an Art festival to be held there. I went there with a maddalam player. G. P. Shekhar tried to arrange a fiddle player and a flautist for my performance. We rehearsed and performed Navarasa abhinaya, mudra abhinaya, shloka abhinaya, Hunter Dance and Garuda Dance at New Theatre in Thampanoor. With the blessings of Mookambika Devi, the programme had done well. Miss Watts, a foreigner, was watching the programme and she appreciated my dance very much and spoke about it to the Maharaja and Queen Mother of Travancore. They were to visit Calcutta and at that time, Mathur S.K. Panicker worked as a Railway Engineer. I was fortunate enough to meet the Maharaja and Queen Mother through Mathur S.K. Panicker during my programme in Calcutta.

However, since Miss Watts had discussed about my programme with the Maharaja and Queen Mother, I was invited by the Manager (Administrator) of Kowdiyar School in Kerala, through Shekhar for a programme to be held in the school auditorium. I performed the same programme which I had performed the day before. After the show, the elites congratulated me and gave me their feedback about my performance. I politely accepted their praise and bowed to them in all humility. The next morning around 10, the Archaeological director R.V. Poduval came to my place and invited me to perform for Dewan Habibullah (an Indian politician appointed as Dewan by Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma - Maharaja of Travancore) at the garden party.

I was asked to perform in a place called Bhaktivilasam. Accompanied by R.V. Poduval, I informed G.P. Shekhar about the programme. I agreed to perform. When I heard that the Maharaja and Queen Mother would also be invited to see the programme I was worried. I thought if I perform the same dances, they might not be interested anymore. At that time, I was staying with the famous music maestro T Laxman Pillai in his house. Due to anxiety I could not sleep until midnight thinking about the programme.

Are you going to tell me about the momentous occasion that happened at around 3am in the morning?
Yes. I dreamt of a dancing peacock. There is a similar dance form called 'Kekiyattam' in Kathakali. It's an offering - Thookam Vazhipadu - in Mitrakkari temple.

In my dream a lady told me to adorn myself in the garb of the Vazhipadu and perform. I woke up startled and immediately penned down the dream on a piece of paper. Later, I started thinking about the costume and pondered over the choice of scenes from Kekiyattam for the programme. Early morning, after a shower, prayers and breakfast, I left with percussionist Kunju Warrier to Chala Bazaar and bought a bunch of peacock feathers for one Rupee, black thread, curtain rings, elastic and peacock coloured clothes etc for Rs.5. While coming back I brought along a flautist and a fiddler with me. In the evening, I met G.P. Shekhar and informed him that there will be an additional dance called the 'Peacock dance' (Mayura nrittam) and explained a bit about the piece to him. Shekhar said that the peacock dance should be very well coordinated with the music. We came back and started rehearsing. The costume to be worn was given for stitching. Kekiyattam is done in Chempata talam, four kaalams. Accordingly, the flautist and the fiddler played the Carnatic song 'Omkaramayi vilangum' in 1st speed , 2nd speed, 3rd speed and 4th speed (kaalam) and I danced as a peacock entering the garden and then seeing the dark clouds, the peacock spreads its feathers - I did the same. We choreographed and rehearsed it. After an hour, G.P. Shekhar watched the rehearsal. We made it a 7 minute presentation. Shekhar said that we need special light arrangements for the peacock dance and he said he would talk with his friend, Professor P. K. Krishna Pillai from Science College to arrange for light designs. We stopped rehearsing to have lunch.

The feathers that had to be spread just like the peacock was arranged with an elastic and tied to the waist. In Thookam (the temple offering mentioned before), the feathers hang down from around the waist. I made it in a way that would make the feathers hang from my waist behind like a tail so that I can spread them the way a peacock spreads it.

Could you elaborate on the programme in Bhaktivilasam?
The time of my programme was scheduled at 8pm at Bhaktivilasam. We reached before the audience gathered for the garden party and soon after P. K. Krishna Pillai and G.P. Shekhar reached the place with a special spotlight. Vasudeva Poduval showed us the dressing room and the programme hall. Soon, the Maharaja, Queen Mother and the Dewan arrived and took their seats on time. We performed Navarasa abhinaya, Hunter Dance and Peacock Dance. And Shekhar explained to the audience the background of the pieces before the performance. P.K. Krishna Pillai provided the apt coloured lights for each Navarasa abhinaya. Similarly, he provided the appropriate light effects for Epic Dance (Vyadha Nrittam) and Peacock Dance (Mayura nrittam). In the 3rd stage of Mayura nritta, I raised the peacock feathers tied behind my waist with my fingers on each side without anyone noticing it and simply raised it above and spread it like a peacock spreads its feathers with the druta gati pada vinyasam (different chollu and talam). The entire audience gave a standing ovation with thunderous claps. Till I was on stage performing the peacock dance, I was getting repeated applause and encouragement from the audience.

How did the royals take your performance? How did they reward your achievement?
Back in the dressing room the palace administrator Nalla Perumal Pillai came and informed me that the Maharaja had loved my performance and invited me to the Kavadiyar Kottaram (palace) the next day morning at10.30am. At the same time, the private secretary of the Dewan offered me Rs.200 in an envelope. Vasudeva Poduval took all of us to another room and served us tea and snacks. Later, I thanked G.P. Shekhar and Krishna Pillai and after handing over the money to the members of the orchestra, I retired to my room for a sound sleep. The next morning, I reached Kavadiyar palace office at 10.25am. At that time, private secretary Krishnamurthy instructed the helpers of the palace to guide me to the visitors' room. After some time the Maharaja and the Queen Mother came. I bowed to them according to the custom and stood there respectfully with my arms crossed. "Gopinath, your presentation of Rasas and Vyadha nrittam was much better yesterday than the one you presented here in the palace. Mayura nrittam was excellent and it was like a real peacock dancing," said the Maharaja. He also asked me how many days it took me to present Kekiyattam in this form to which I replied I got only 1 day to prepare. And I also told him about my dream.

How did the Maharaja and the Queen Mother show their appreciation for your creativity?
The Maharaja asked me if I was a devotee of Devi. I answered in the affirmative. Queen Mother also enquired through the Maharaja about Ragini Devi and the changes that we made in Kathakali. She wanted to know about our North India tour. I responded to all those queries with respect. Then came the greatest surprise. The Queen Mother said, "Gopinath, the Kathakali art form has reached greater heights through you and your performances. It would be nice if you can adapt more dances (nritta) from Kathakali. We loved your performance. Please accept this". And then the Maharaja awarded me with "Veera Srinkhala" (medal) made of gold. I accepted that with great devotion and respect and bowed to them. The helpers brought me back to the office.

What followed next?
I made off for the Exhibition ground. There I met G. P. Sekhar and Krishna Pillai Sir and informed them about all that had happened in the palace and showed the gold medal to them. Both of them were overjoyed. And they said that the medal is not for keeping in my pocket and they tied it to my right hand wrist. Thereafter, we were in the Kalolsavam (youth festival). President Judge Gopala Menon and Vice President Prof. R Srinivasan were informed about my receiving of the Veera Srinkhala medal from the King. They both saw the medal and congratulated me. 'No one has received the Veera Srinkhala at such a young age like you from the Maharaja,' they said. I was then 25 years old. I humbly thanked them and the three of us left for a tea shop. At that time, the journalist/writer of Malayala Rajyam newspaper Chaloor Konam Kuttan Pillai and A Parameswaran Pillai and exhibition secretary A Narayana Pillai were also present there. G.P. Shekhar informed them that I had received the Veera Srinkhala medal from the Maharaja. Hearing this, they congratulated me. Malayala Rajyam writer took me to Krishnan Nair Studio and took my photo. There he informed me that at Bhaktivilasam when Nalla Perumal Pillai was talking about me, he (writer of newspaper) thought that I would get a reward from the Maharaja, but he wasn't aware that it would be the prestigious Veera Srinkhala! Krishnan Pillai shook my hands and said 'Lucky man, Lucky man!' I replied to Krishna Pillai Sir that it was because of both (G.P. Shekhar and Krishna Pillai Sir) their help and support, and with the blessings of Mookambika Devi that I had received this recognition. I thanked them and left for Kerala Kalamandalam.

Your admirers would like to know about your childhood fairy-tale like dreams that unfolded in your youth?
When I was in class four, the last page of Malayalam Pathavali (book) had a picture of Maharaja Vishakham Thirunal wearing a crown and a majestic coat and riding a chariot drawn by 4 horses to do the Puja; I always hoped to see him in person. During my childhood days, I used to pester my grandma for stories. Once she spoke about my grandfather. She said that my grandfather was at the service (sevakan) of Maharaja Aayilyam Tirunal. We used to stay in Kunnukuzhiyil in Thiruvananthapuram during those days. People used to also call my grandfather Bheeman Paramu Pillai and Unda Paramu Pillai. He was an expert in Bheeman vesham of Duryodhana Vadham. My grandfather had held the post of Palliyaravicharippu (maintaining and providing service in the Maharaja's chambers). He had received the Andathodan Veera Srinkhala from the Maharaja.

I asked, 'Grandma, will I also get a Veera Srinkhala just like Appuppa (grandfather)?'
'If you have luck, you will also get it,' replied Ammumma (grandmother).

On my way back to Kerala Kalamandalam in a bus, I was feeling happy that my childhood dream of receiving the Veera Srinkhala medal from Maharaja Chithira Tirunal himself was fulfilled.

What surprises awaited you in Kerala Kalamandalam?
As soon as I reached Kerala Kalamandalam, I met Vallathol and Mukundaraja and informed them about me receiving the Veera Srinkhala from the Maharaja. "Veera Srinkhala is the highest ranked award that someone can receive in those days from a Maharaja", said Vallathol adding that it was because of the blessings of Mookambika Devi that I received this award at such a young age.

Next evening there was a meeting held at Kalamandalam, to felicitate me. The students and teachers of Kalamandalam, Vallathol, Mukundaraja, elder son of Vallathol - Balakrishna Kurup - were present in the meeting. Balakrishna Kurup and Mukundaraja gave felicitation speeches and Vallathol recited a few lines of his self written poem.

(to be continued...)

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.

I liked the way you did an imaginary interview with Guruji; it gives the impression of live talking with Guruji. I must congratulate you for this beautiful work. I wish for the continuation and am waiting for the next episode.
- Sipu Jayswal (Delhi)

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