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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 5
- Tapati Chowdhurie
Photos courtesy: Swami Tattwarupananda

November 25, 2021

The story so far
A glimpse into Guru Gopinath's life from his autobiography in Malayalam - translated into English by Babita Nair - was the inspiration behind my imaginary interview of my Guru. The interviews discussed his meeting with Ragini Devi whom he partnered in Bombay. His epoch making presentation of Kathakali with her on the proscenium stage, when for the first time Kathakali was performed outside Kerala; His fame as an 'Indian dancer'; his plans to marry Thangamani, a disciple of Mohiniattam exponent Mankara Kalyaniamma, leading to his eventual marriage; his receiving of the Veera Srinkhala Award from the Maharaja of Travancore; his performances at Santiniketan on Rabindranath Tagore's invitation and winning of accolades from him are some of the memorable events in his life written about in the previous chapters.

All parts of the interview

This is the fifth part of my imaginary interview of Guru Gopinath.

Was your program at Kavadiar School a success?
At the end of our performance, the Maharaja and Maharani came to congratulate and praise us for our presentation. He wanted to know our next plan. When I expressed my desire to stay on in Thiruvananthapuram with his grace, he promised to do the needful. He wanted us to request the chief secretary of the palace for a scheme to start a school and that was an indication to the success of our program. We laid the foundation stone of our school. G.P. Shekhar and I chose to name the new school 'Sri Chitrodaya Nartakalayam.' We then prepared a plan in English for its running. It was naturally going to be run under the guardianship of the palace administrator and presented it to the chief secretary Dr. Kunjan Pillai. He replied that he would inform the palace (Kottaram in Malayalam) and get back to us. Shekhar did not expect a reply before ten days.

What made you shift your residence to Thiruvattattu?
The house where we were put up was not very convenient and hence G. P. Shekhar and I went to Thiruvattattu to my mother's home and met my maternal uncle V. Krishnan Thampi and requested him to give us a place to stay. He was overjoyed and happily offered us an outhouse in Thiruvattattu for free. So the very next day itself, Thangamani, the other team members and I shifted to the outhouse and started our dance rehearsals.

What was the nucleus of the two pieces Vasanthotsavam and Urvashi which you composed and in which Thangamani excelled?
Sometimes Krishnan Thampi used to come to watch our rehearsals. He had written a song called "Thingalum Thaliroliyum" and it was his wish to name the song 'Vasanthotsavam' and do a dance choreography on the same. I took the lyrics of the song from him and taught it to Thangamani. The next day, Thampi came during the rehearsals and discussed the tune of the song, the meaning of the words and the right abhinaya that is required for the heroine. I followed his advice and choreographed and directed the song accordingly, much to his liking.

Later 'Urvashi' was also choreographed featuring Thangamani on another poem of Krishnan Thampi called 'Vikramorvashyam' with lyrics starting with "Poonthen mozhiyen thozhi poka nee avilambam." The tune and the ragam according to the situation were explained to our singer by Thampi himself. Within 15 days, we choreographed, rehearsed and finalised both the items 'Vasanthotsavam' and 'Urvashi' for a stage program. Thampi specially organised this program for Thangamani where the two new items were performed in the big hall of mother's house at Thiruvattattu in the presence of some of his friends and art lovers. Everybody praised the graceful movements and the performance of Thangamani.

What was the fate of the Sri Chitrodaya Nartakalayam you had planned?
We did not hear from the chief secretary for a month. So Shekhar and I went to Park View and met the chief secretary. There we came to know that the scheme had been sent to the education department and that we would get the order soon. Within 2 weeks, we received the order from the chief secretary. It identified me as a 'Palace dancer' and the manager of Sri Chitrodaya Nartakalayam with Rs.150 as a monthly grant and Rs.25 for the monthly rent.

The order also mentioned that daily classes can be conducted under the administration of the palace heads and the permission for performing programs outside was granted as well. Accordingly, on Malayalam month Kumbham 112, we rented a place facing the roadside, west of Pujappura Central Jail and established Sri Chitrodaya Nartakalayam. Thangamani, I and the other troupe members shifted to the newly rented place.

Who were your students in your new school?
Those days, it was very difficult to get students who wanted to learn dance. After a lot of hard work, I managed to bring 5 girls from Chengannoor, Aranmula, Kumarakom and Chambakkulam and 2 boys from Kodungalloor and Chambakkulam to join Nartakalayam. I promised them 6 years of free dance training by bearing all their expenses.

What about the accompanying musicians?
I recruited a female singer, a mridangam player and a maddalam player on a monthly pay.

What rules did you make for the dance school?
We decided to keep the dance school closed on Mondays and other government holidays.

What was the system of training you devised for your students?
We devised a time table for the syllabus and we started our training. The timings planned were:
6am - 7:30am for Mei Sadhakam (Body movement practice) and different types of adavu practice; 9am - 11:30am: Mudra practice, Mukha Abhinaya (facial expressions) and Anga Vinyasas (Hand gestures and their uses).
Afternoon 2:30 - 3pm: Practice of eye exercises (Kannu Sadhakam), 3:30 - 5pm: Learning teermanams and culmination of an item.
Later, after offering prayers in the evening, we did an hour of talam practice. Thus, in one class I trained my students for 8 hours and after this rigorous training for a year, they were able to perform some veshams on stage.

Guru Gopinath and Thangamani
Shiva-Parvathi dance by Guru Gopinath and Thangamani
Photo by Travancore Maharaja Marthanda Varma

When was the first program of Nartakalayam held?
The first program that I did together with my students and Thangamani was at Kavadiyar Kottaram (palace). On that day, the king, queen mother and Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer (Diwan), chief secretary, other chief officers and some royal members of the palace were present. A pushpanjali by 3 girls, 'Nrityathi' a Shiva Tandavam by one of the boys, Thodi Swarajathi by 2 girls, Mayura nrittam (peacock dance) by one of the boys, Rasaleela by one boy and 5 girls, Radha Krishna dance and Shiva-Parvathi dance by Thangamani and myself were the pieces performed.

After the program, the king and the queen mother conveyed their appreciation of the performance to me. The queen pointed out some inadequacies in the costumes in some items and some mistakes in the song that was sung. She also suggested some rectifications in our future performances.

What were some of the other programs you did after the first one?
We performed few programs that year for the Feast festival. With the collaboration of G.P. Shekhar and P. K. Krishna Pillai, we got a very good program at the Victoria Jubilee Hall with a good audience and good remuneration.

Did these subsequent programs get you new pupils?
After that program, children of some rich families and officers came to join the Nartakalayam. Lalitha, Padmini - who later became famous dancers and film artistes - Shakuntala and Sitamma who were the granddaughters (on his son's side) of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Mangalam and Lakshmi who were the relatives of S. Chidambaram, former Judge S. Velupillai's daughter Shyamala, Advocate General K. G. Kunjukrishna Pillai's daughter Sharada, Kalyani - daughter of businessman Shivasankar, Keshavdas - son of Gopala Krishna Pillai who was the Superintendent of Police, Chandrashekharan (Guru Chandrashekharan), my nephew Chellappan (Kottayam Chellappan) came to the Nartakalayam. Few among them wanted to take dance as a career. Later on, few other girls also came to join the Nartakalayam.

A very knowledgeable connoisseur of the arts, what role did the queen mother play for the presentation of your programs where attention was given to perfect renditions?
Once a month, I used to report to the queen mother about the dance school and the practices. She used to periodically instruct me on some of the necessary points for the growth of the art. According to her wish, I choreographed few Varnams and Padams of Swati Thirunal and directed few dance dramas like Girija Kalyanam, Kiratam, Bhasmasura Mohini, Geethopadesham, Suthopasundathilottama.

I normally used to show all the items to the queen mother and take her feedback before presenting anywhere outside. Even though I was already a nationally renowned artiste, in front of the queen mother I was an artiste with limited knowledge. So I focussed on gaining more knowledge on Geetha-Tala-Natya. It was very helpful for me to follow the advice and criticism of Amma Maharani (queen mother) for maintaining the basic principles of art.

When I was a student in Natana Niketan in Madras (Chennai), many dignitaries came to the school to watch us dance. Did you have visitors and special guests in Sri Chitrodaya Nartakalayam too?
When special guests arrived in the state, it was a regular affair to have our program either at Kanakakunnu palace or Kavadiyar School. Often important guests used to visit the Nartakalayam and watch our practice. Normally, R.V. Poduval used to bring them to the dance school.

Could you tell us interesting anecdotes of what took place during these visits?
Once, R.V. Poduval brought F.W. Thomas, a professor from Oxford, to Nartakalayam. We showed him some simple and normal training of dance we follow after which Poduval told F.W. Thomas that I could show through gesture language any word or sentence he chose to ask. So the professor uttered different words and I used mudras and abhinaya to articulate them. In the end, he uttered the word 'cat'. I was foxed, because I hadn't learnt any mudra for a cat and neither had I ever used it before. I expressed my inability to Poduval. He repeated the word and tried to give some expression to it. Instantly I figured out the expression/abhinaya of a cat from Poduval's face and I extended my thumb and little finger of my right hand as the ears of a cat and folded the rest of the three fingers to show the face of a cat and contracted my eyes to imitate a cat going to drink milk from a bowl. Dr Thomas was impressed. After this incident, I realised how important facial expressions are, especially the chin movements.

When did you get a chance to perform in Madras?
It was in the month of December in 1938 when Thangamani and I got a chance to perform in Madras. We were invited to perform at a weeklong festival organised by Madras Fine Arts Society. We took permission from the administrators of the palace and came to Madras with our team. It was a very prestigious event. People like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramani Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.S. Subbulakshmi and other famous musicians, and Bharatanatyam dancers like Balasaraswati, Varalakshmi, Bhanumathi were also participating in this festival.

Guru Gopinath
Guru Gopinath
Guru Thangamani
Photos by Travancore Maharaja Marthanda Varma

How would you gauge the success of your Madras program?
People came in large numbers. All those who had come to see our program on our scheduled date, were unable to enter the hall as it was over crowded, so our program was repeated again the next day for them. Even then, the Gokhale Hall was filled with spectators. It was highly applauded so much so that Kalki Krishnamurthy, the editor of the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, took a photo of me and published my Shringaradi Navarasangal with an article in Ananda Vikatan. That was the first time that an article on Navarasa was published. With that photo and article about our dance troupe, we became widely known in the state of Madras. Our popularity soared and we got invited to Trichirapally, Madurai, Chettinadu etc. We got programs every year from the Fine Arts Society, Music Academy and Rasika Ranjani Sabha.

Did you incorporate any new compositions and choreographic work specially for Madras?
I composed and choreographed scenes of Parijatham, Valli Parinayam and Nandanar to Tamil songs and designed my performances to run for two and a half hours.

You must have collected many an accolade for your exceptional compositions and choreographic skills?
We received many silver cups and shields as gifts for all the events held in connection with ceremonies like weddings and other rituals in Karaikudi, Pithupetti, Valayapatti etc.

Were your Madras programs filmed?
The scene of Thangamani's 'Vasanthotsavam' was filmed at that time.

What roles did you and your troupe members play in the Malayalam film 'Prahlada'? What was your experience in the field of films?
I was Hiranyakashipu, Thangamani was Kayathu, my student Lakshmi was Prahlada and N. P. Chellappan Nair was Shukracharyar. The film director K Subramaniam and P Subramanian, owner of New Theatres at Thampanoor, produced the film in Madras Gemini Studios. After the release of the film, I was invited to act in the film 'Vikatayogi'. The first day of the shoot of the film 'Prahlada,' I dressed as Hiranyakashipu within the allotted time and was in the green room with the sthayi bhava of Hiranyakashipu. The director came and inspected my costume and he found it beautiful and asked me to wait.

The director went about his work in the studio. I sat in a cane chair with the pride of Hiranyakashipu. After a while a peon brought a glass of buttermilk for me. I drank slowly with a small straw without spoiling my moustache and lips. I was not called in for about 30 minutes. I was wearing a crown of metal. I removed the crown from my head when I got a small headache and placed it on my lap. The studio assistant came to inform me that there would be a delay of another 15 minutes. I took a cigarette from an assistant makeup man and started smoking carefully without burning my moustache and started a conversation with him. Because of the long wait, the sthayi bhava of Hiranyakashipu was gone and I became myself. After a while someone came and told me to go inside. Immediately I put back my crown on my head and checked my costume if it was fine and stepped inside the studio with my right foot forward. The director showed me the place to act. When I got there, I was hearing the occasional electrician code word changing from "Number two up", "5 baby tilt down", with the lights hitting on my face and body one by one from many places. After all that, the cameraman started moving on the trolley. Then the director asked me to deliver my dialogue: "Kayathu! Give this poison to Prahlada," I said. The sound engineer was Ranga Rao from Andhra Pradesh. He said, 'Mr. Gopinath, please once more'. Accordingly I repeated. "What?" he said to me, "Kayathu , you give poison of words are not clear." When I repeated once again clearly and slowly, he said "OK." "Ready for shot" instructed the director. "Silence" he said and it was pin drop silence inside the studio and outside.

The lights were switched on. Someone came with a clapboard which looked like a slate and clapped it in front of my face and moved aside, I was stunned. At that time, the director gave me the signal to start. I said "Kayathu, you..." and the rest I could not remember. "Cut, Cut!" the director said. All lights dimmed. The director told me that I should deliver my dialogue after the clap. After that he said, "Ready, Take 2" and the lights were on. The clap was done again. I started my dialogue. Cameraman and sound engineer were also doing their job. That shot was over. The director asked the cameraman Kamal Ghosh and the sound engineer how it went. Kamal Ghosh replied "Good." Sound engineer said "Dialogue not clear." "OK, Take 3". It was shot again. By this point, I could no longer maintain the sthayi bhava of Hiranyakashipu. That day there was only one another shot. In the following days, my fear gradually subsided, but I was not able to act freely and naturally. But in the same movie, I did a dance of 'Yama' and I did that with ease. The audience also praised it as an important scene of the film. I could not do full justice to my character with the sthayi bhava of the character and hence I refused to do 'Vikatayogi.'

Were Thankamani and you paid handsomely for the film?
We were given Rs. 8000 for the film 'Prahlada.' But for 'Vikatayogi,' they were ready to pay Rs. 36000 only for me but even then I refused because of the difficulties I faced during the shoot of 'Prahlada.' To perform on a stage is not like performing in a film. It has different ways of acting in keeping with the situation. I was a misfit for films. So instead of accepting Rs. 36000, I stood firm in my field of dance. However, I acted as Jesus Christ in the movie 'Jeevitha Nauka,' as Bhasmasura in 'Maya Bazaar' and as Poothana in the film 'Bhakta Kuchela.' I was the dance director of the movies Jeevitha Nauka, Vishappinte Vili, Athmasakhi, Thozhilali, Maya Bazaar and Kumara Sambhava.

Kathakali actors speak a sign language where the word part is expressed through mudras, while the emotions and mood is expressed through facial and eye movement. I have also seen you expressing almost anything and everything not only because of your rigorous training, but also because of your talent in miming as well. Can you relate any anecdote to show how realistic a Kathakali artist's miming can be?
A funny incident happened when a foreigner's dog was barking at a Kathakali dancer and the dancer used his art to act out the throwing of a stone at the barking dog. The dog barked and ran back to its owner. The foreigner was angry at the Kathakali dancer for throwing a stone, when actually he had not thrown one. The foreigner then asked him to show the bhava that he did to scare away the dog. The dancer promptly enacted the episode of Mount Kailasa in flames from 'Kailasodharana' at the spot where the foreigner was seated. In the grip of fear the foreigner fell off his chair. In 'Baka Vadham, a dancer dressed as a carpenter on the stage chewed betel leaf and mimed the expression of spitting in the direction of a nobleman who came to see the show. The nobleman immediately checked his shirt to see if there were drops of spit on it. Not finding any, he gifted the dancer with a kasavu with gold border.

These are some of the stories that make their rounds amongst Kathakali dancers.

(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.

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