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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 3
- Tapati Chowdhurie

October 25, 2021

This is the third part of my imaginary interview of Guru Gopinath, the answers of which have been taken from his autobiography in Malayalam translated for me by Babita Nair, a Bharatanatyam aspirant. In the previous two parts of the series, I wrote about Guru Gopinath's meeting with American dancer Esther Luella Sherman/Ragini Devi, with whose initiative Kathakali was presented for the first time outside Kerala in Bombay, where he created an audience for Kathakali. I wrote about his intense self training to learn English to converse with Ragini Devi and read newspaper reviews and reports. I touched upon his hearing of the beautiful maiden Thangamani who was the first student of Mohiniattam under the first teacher on the subject in Kalamandalam. I also elaborated on his connect with the royal family of Travancore and his receiving the Veera Srinkhala award from the Maharaja.

All parts of the interview

This is the third part of the series.

Vallathol's poem that he composed praising Gopinath for receiving the Veera Srinkhala Award:

"Adhuna videshiya shlakhakeettinnattorum
Sthithicha Kathakali nrithame
Chittaranjakamanya drishtamaami malayala
Narthanam prayogichu Bharatarajyathellam
Paerperum shriragini sahanarthakanay
Gopinathangal Kalamandala shishyanthangal
Suprassannann aaya ponnu thampuran Vanjeeshwaran
Kalpichu koduthathu allo Veera Srinkhala chinham
He Gopinatha kunje! Thaavakolkarshathinay
Bhaavukam cholvu kalamandalothodu oppam ngan.

In the above poem written in Malayalam the poet had praised the young dancer Gopinath for his achievement of being the recipient of Veera Srinkhala from Thampuran (King Vanjeeshwaran) and that he has made Kathakali and dance famous all over India, There is also a mention of Ragini Devi and that Guru Gopinath was a co-dancer with Ragini Devi.

I have heard that Vallathol Narayana Menon was called Rabindranath Tagore of Kerala. What was your reaction on being praised so highly about your achievement in verse from this great man?
I expressed my humble gratitude over his kind wishes and appreciation. And I wrote all this happy news in a letter to Ragini Devi. She sent me congratulatory letters.

From which other quarter did you earn praise for your work?
Praise of my work was to be found in Mumbai's English newspapers also. They reported our performance, particularly mine and spoke highly of me for being a recipient of the Veera Srinkhala award given by the Maharaja. The felicitation of Kalamandalam in the Malayalam year 1111 and 21st of Tulam masam (in the Malayalam calendar), were not to be forgotten incidents in my life. The daily newspapers like Mathrubhoomi, Manorama, Malayala Rajyam also published the felicitation news along with the poem by Vallathol, and my pleasure was immense.

When did Mankara Kalyaniamma see your Veera Srinkhala Award? Was your aim only to show Kalyaniamma your new found glory?
On the third morning after reaching Kalamandalam, I wore the Veera Srinkhala on my wrist and visited Kalyaniamma and Thangamani in their residence. Kalyaniamma asked me, "Are you wearing the Veera Srinkhala that you received from the king, son?" She touched it and said, "It must be roughly around 6 pawan (approx 48g) of gold." I was pleased to see that Thangamani also was very happy to see it. After that Kalyaniamma returned to teaching Cholkettu to Thangamani. Later on, I also picked up some counts from the Cholkettu.

What induced you to restart your Mohiniattam training?
I started my training in Mohiniattam once again, because of the desire to see Thangamani.

So love blossomed here in its many splendoured beauty?
I used to see her daily but never got the opportunity to express my feelings of love to her. All that we did was exchange glances and smiles. Unfortunately this lasted only for 5 days because I received a letter from Ragini Devi that Indrani and I should reach Bombay as soon as possible.

Did you get a chance to express your feelings to Thangamani?
The evening before our departure, I went to Vallathol's house to tell him about Ragini Devi's instructions to me. At that time Thangamani was at Vallathol's house and I came to know that Vallathol had gone out for a stroll. I used that opportunity to express my feelings to Thangamani. She replied that she could not confirm anything regarding marriage without the consent of her parents. I understood from her tone and behaviour that she was not uninterested in my proposal.

What else did you tell her?
I told her I would travel a few more years and would marry her once I got back. To which she smiled. I also smiled back. Our conversation ended there. After some time, Vallathol returned. I informed him about my travel and left.

What further developments took place?
Mukundaraja was not in town during that time. The next morning, Indrani and I boarded the train to Bombay from Mulamkunnathu Kaavu. During the whole journey I missed Thangamani.

What dance activities awaited you in Bombay?
I knew that Ragini Devi was planning to have more performers, musicians and dances than the last time. Accordingly, I had taken with me a percussionist, a flautist and an artiste from Kerala. A monthly income for all of us including me was decided upon and new items were planned. Girija Kalyanam, Lakshmi Narayana Mangalanritham, Kali Thandavam , Pattam Parappikkal (Flying kites), Rati Manmatha, Mayura Nritham (peacock dance), Vaamana Mahabali were the additional pieces, which were added to our repertoire. We performed in several programs in Bombay one after the other. The daily newspapers continued to appreciate our programs.

When did you get a chance to showcase your dances in films?
Director Bhavnani took my Vyadha Nritham for a film. Also at the same time, Ragini Devi and I performed Laksmi Narayana dance in a Telugu film 'Draupadi Maanasamrakshanam', where the lead character was Ballari Raghavacharyar. Ragini Devi did not inform me about the remuneration received for the two movies. I was given only my monthly payments. The previous year, I was getting the amount that I had asked for, which was enough for my daily expenses and also for sending home. But this year, I realised that Ragini Devi was not showing the same cooperation like the previous year. So I also did not cooperate with her. We then started our travel to North India. This time, in most places we fixed the percentage amount with the theatre owners for our programs.

What problems did you face in the absence of a proper manager?
Due to the absence of a proper manager, many theatre organizations had cheated Ragini Devi and the team by not providing the promised amount. Thus, she was unable to pay for the troupe travelling with us. I had to force Ragini Devi to pay the artistes whom I had brought along with me from Kerala. Eventually, my monthly income also became irregular. Ragini Devi confided that after certain shows, the organizers never gave enough money for accommodation or artistes. So the troupe was running at a loss.

Navarasa - Guru Gopinath

Master, I am eager to know from you about your Santiniketan trip and Rabindranath Tagore's impression about Kathakali and Indian dance?
In the end of January 1935, we reached Santiniketan with an invitation from the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. We performed in the Sangeet Bhavan hall for 3 days. On two days we performed variety programs. According to the wish of Rabindranath Tagore, on the third day Ragini Devi gave a speech on Kathakali and I performed Navarasa, Mudras and different Pada Hastha Vinyasas in tandava and lasya in different talams. Later in the night, Gurudev wished to see a Kathakali performance and accordingly I dressed like Ravana and Ragini Devi dressed as Sita and we performed 'Sita Apaharanam' from Ramayana. I made Kathichutti (the white beard worn on the cheeks by Kathakali dancers) with paper and glued it on my face. Then I applied the green, red and black colours like in Kathakali and also wore the Uduthukettu, Kuppayam (costume) and other ornaments and crown and came to the stage.

Likewise, Ragini Devi also wore the original Kathakali sthree vesham to perform as Sita. The percussionist Kunju Warrier recited a Kathakali padam "Nallaril Manimoule! Kalyani Katharaksi" and I performed according to the rules of Kathakali as Ravana. And Sita performed on the lines "Aho vanchichu nee enne kastham doorthanishachara." I as Ravana then screamed and showed the canines that we normally hide inside our mouth during the act to lift Sita to abduct her. Seeing this, the kids seated in the front row got scared and some started crying out of fear. When the program was over, Kabiguru came on to the stage and hugged me and appreciated our three day performances, the variety dances as well as our dance dramas. The next day, this program was reported in The Statesman, Amrita Bazaar Patrika and Ananda Baazar Patrika. During this time when we were visiting Santiniketan, K.C. Pillai, Balagangadhara Menon and Indira Gandhi were studying there. Thus I was able to meet them. K.C. Menon informed me that Indira Gandhi had attended the program on all the three days.

The English speech by Gurudev after our program at Santiniketan was translated by K.C. Pillai and forwarded to the Malayala Rajyam newspaper, which the newspaper published with a new headline. Gurudev Tagore said: 'Shri Gopinath is a real artiste. I am sure that there is no artist in India or abroad who can stand beside him. Apart from being a means of arousing the lazy lust of the lazy rich as it is today, he evoked in my mind scenes of the great past, where dance was considered to be the greatest precious art form of India. His presence among us was a great lesson, which showed that dance is once again popular among us; his style has shown us the right path. In its absence, we would still be searching in darkness.'

What were some of your trials and tribulations after your Santiniketan trip?
After returning to Calcutta from Santiniketan and doing two more programs in the city, we travelled to Kharagpur, Dhanbad, Dehradun and Delhi to perform. Then we reached Nagpur, since the owner of the theatre who was organising the program was sick and bedridden, the program got cancelled. By this time, Ragini Devi did not have enough money to provide the accompanying artistes for their stay. The violinist and the veena player from Andhra Pradesh left the troupe immediately. I stayed with the three other Malayalis at a Madrasi hotel. The tabla player and sarangi player from Mumbai stayed in a different hotel.

Ragini Devi stayed in the Railway Retiring room. The next day, I went to meet Ragini Devi and asked her for money for our hotel expenses. She said she only had enough money to return to Bombay that very day and after reaching Bombay she would get money with the help of some wellwishers and send us the amount. She left for Bombay the same day. I went back to the hotel and informed my roommates. We waited for a week for the money order from Ragini Devi. We told the truth to the hotel owner. When he understood that none of us had money, he told us to send him the money from Kerala. Nagpur was extremely hot at that time. We used to pour water on the floor inside our hotel rooms, and sleep on charpais. The hotel manager gave us (myself and flautist Pappan from Kottayam) the address of a Malayali Forest Officer in Nagpur and we went to meet him and told him of our problems. The officer's name was Ramakrishna Pillai. The next day itself he asked us to present a program in his house and collected money for us from his friends and wellwishers who came to see our program. We performed Navarasa and some other pieces and he gave us Rs150 for a 40 minute program. We handed over Rs 100 to the Hotel Manger and we knew that we could not continue staying in that hotel for long. So I decided to go back to Thrissur the very next day and after reaching Thrissur, I planned to pick up money from Cochin Nair Bank and send it to my roommates. They agreed to this proposal. I left for Thrissur the next morning.

I sent a money order of Rs 350 to Nagpur as soon as I reached Thrissur. That was the amount required to pay for the hotel and cover travelling charges for three people from Nagpur to Thrissur. I waited for them at Thrissur in a small hotel. They reached on the third day. I gave each of them money to reach their respective homes and I left for Kalamandalam in Ambalapuram. I related in detail about all the incidents to Vallathol and Mukundaraja. I always remember this incident even though I am now an established dancer.

All this while, were you in touch with Thangamani?
Though I was away in Bombay twice from Kalamandalam, my mind was always in Kalamandalam even though I was physically not present there. Sometimes I wrote to Thangamani. Twice I got a positive response from her. After a few days of my return to Kalamandalam, there was an exhibition organised at the Ganapathi High School in Kozhikode, where Kalyaniamma and Thangamani were to perform Mohiniattam. Mukundaraja took me there to help with the lighting, stage decorations etc. Soon after, both of them performed in Kochi and I went there too together with Thampuran (Maharaja).

What about the dance troupe you were asked to form by Vallathol and Mukundaraja?
Once I was back at Kalamandalam, Vallathol and Mukundaraja asked me to form a new dance troupe - Nartaka Sangham - with Thangamani and some new students for Kalamandalam. I started working on it with great pleasure. We chose two girls from Edappally. I started staying in a rented house, which was in-between Kalamandalam and Vallathol's house. In front of that house, from Kalamandalam itself they prepared a Kalari for rehearsals. As a teacher, I started training of the basic steps to Thangamani and two other students. After a week and a half the girls from Edapally left for their home and never came back. Now, I was the only one as a teacher and Thangamani as a student in the Kalari. On some days, Vallathol and Mukundaraja came to watch our rehearsals. And on the other days when it was just the two us, we discussed about marriage.


What did Thangamani (my first dance teacher) have to say about your marriage proposal?
One day, soon after the class began, it started to rain heavily. At that time, I thought nobody would turn up. So I finished the class and asked for a promise from Thangamani that after we get married, we would perform together on stage. But Thangamani immediately replied, without any change of expressions, that this can happen only if her parents agreed to our marriage. I continued talking to Thangamani and asked her what her birth star was. She said it was Uthram (Malayalam birth star) to which I replied without her asking me that 'mine is Pooyam'. At that moment, I saw Vallathol walking towards the house with an umbrella in the heavy rain. I tried to cover up by immediately asking Thangamani to perform an adavu (chuvadu sadhakam).

How did Vallathol react?
Vallathol entered the Kalari and asked Thangamani, 'Still practising in the rain?' And then he asked me, 'Have you already choreographed the Varnam 'Swami ninne nammithira?' I nodded in the affirmative. 'Ok, let me see it,' replied Vallathol and I asked Thangamani to perform it. After watching her dance, Vallathol asked her to bring more viraha dukha bhavam in her dance. By then the rain had stopped. 'Ok, now you can stop the rehearsal,' said Vallathol. Thangamani did her namsakar and left for her home. After talking to me for some time, Vallathol left for lunch.

What steps did you take next?
I thought to myself that this incident should not be repeated, because Vallathol and Thampuran might lose their trust and affection for me. I decided to express my desire to marry Thangamani to Vallathol. That evening at 5pm when Vallathol was walking towards Mundatthikkottu field, I followed him. He sat on a small bridge and I said that I would like to tell him something. He asked me what it was about. I wrote on my palm of my wish to marry Thangamani and that we both could dance together like partners, which would be beneficial for Kalamandalam and the new troupe. I recall the way I gestured for Thangam (gold) and mani (bells).

What did Vallathol have to say to your confession?
Vallathol's face turned serious. He said he was not in favour because 'once you get married, Thangamani will conceive and you won't be able to dance and it will be a hindrance to your career.' I promised that she would not conceive for the next six years at least.

Was Vallathol convinced?
Vallathol said that these promises will change after marriage. I refrained from pursuing the topic any more. Later in the evening, we both walked back to our homes. That night I could not sleep as I was extremely sad.

What did Thampuran have to say to you next morning? Did the meeting with him go in favour of your marriage to Thangamani?
Next day morning at 9am, a peon came and informed me that Thampuran was calling for me. I reached Kalamandalam and met Thampuran. He told me that Vallathol had told him about my desire to get married. He said that it was not possible. In that case he wanted to drop the plan of forming a troupe. To which I replied that I thought with the last few experiences, it's better I get married to Thangamani and we become dance partners so that people don't speak anything bad against us. Thampuran was still not in favour. He said I was young and it's best for me to forget about it. I left sorrowfully.

What did Thangamani say about her departure and likely return?
Thangamani came around 2pm to my house and informed me that she was going home for Onam. I asked her when she was coming back. To which she said that the manager from Kalamandalam has asked her to return only when they intimate her. 'Whatever happens, I will only marry you and this will happen with the blessings of Mookambika Devi,' I said. I gave her the ring with stone that Vallathol had presented me. She left immediately holding the ring in her hand. I was satisfied that she had accepted my ring.

When Thangamani did not return after Onam what did you do?
I enquired with the Kalamandalam manager about her. He was not sure of her return. He said that Thampuran has ordered that there was no need to organise the troupe.

What steps did you take next?
I spent the whole week feeling like a failure. I kept thinking of how I could make this marriage possible. Then I met Vallathol's driver Manghat Govindan Nair by chance. I told him everything about my marriage wish. He asked me not to worry. He knew Thangamani's father and promised to go to Kunnumkulam and arrange everything, for which he needed Rs 100. I immediately gave him the money.

(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.

What more can I say? Amazing!
Thanks to Narthaki for including these interviews.
- Vasanti Jayaswal (Oct 27, 2021)

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