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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 6
- Tapati Chowdhurie
Photos courtesy: Sashimohan

December 13, 2021

All parts of the interview

Guru Gopinath was a dancer par excellence. Dance was everything that mattered to him. Money could not lure him to do anything if that came in the way of dance. To fathom why, I asked him the following question.

Why did you decline the offer of acting in films though you were offered a large sum of money?
Performance on a stage is not like performing in a film. It has different ways of acting out situations. I was not capable of that, because I could not sustain the bhava of the character on account of the innumerable takes a film involves. So instead of accepting Rs 36000 for a role in a film, I stood firm and had no qualms in rejecting it in favour of stage performance, where I had the opportunity of sustaining the bhava of the character to be portrayed.

But you did act in a few other films?
Yes! I did act as Jesus Christ in the movie Jeevitha Nauka, as Bhasmasura in Maya Bazaar and as Poothana in the film Bhakta Kuchela, before coming to the realization that dancing in a film is not my cup of tea.

Did you also direct dances for films?
Yes, I did have a short stint in that role. I was the dance director of Jeevitha Nauka, Visappinte Vili, Athmasakhi, Thozhilali, Maya Bazaar and Kumara Sambhavam.

Guru Gopinath
Guru Gopinath

You had the chance to perform at the prestigious Madras Music Academy. When was that? How was your dance received in Madras and other places?
In the last week of December in 1940, we got to perform in Madras Music Academy and the last show of the program was our 'Geethopadesham', where I was Krishna and my student G. Keshavdas was Arjuna. We were performing the scene of driving a chariot to the battlefield. Our expressive acting coupled with our supposed movement of driving the chariot made Rao Bahadur Krishnaswamy Iyer, the President of Madras Music Academy, seated in his chair in the front row, move his chair back, presuming that the chariot would move forward - that's how authentic our acting was! This amused some bystanders. This was indeed a reward for our performance of the scene.

This particular piece has been appreciated by luminaries like the Indian President Sri Radhakrishnan, and the Governor of Madras, Sir Arthur Oswald James Hope. Subsequently it was difficult for me to find a student and a Kathakali dancer who could do the scene with the same intensity as the two of us did together.

We were also appreciated by the Maharani - queen mother. When I was the palace dancer, the Upanayanam ceremony of His Highness Marthanda Varma Ilayaraja was held. For that, the queen mother informed me that Madam Menaka and her party were coming from Bombay for a dance performance and that my dance along with Thangamani was also scheduled to be held there and that it should be done very beautifully. She also told us to use Rs 650 as our expenses to be spent on making new costumes for it. Accordingly, we prepared the scene of Sita's abduction which Ragini Devi and I had performed earlier for Tagore in Shantiniketan (Sri Rama going to capture the deer at Sita's request, culminating in Ravana abducting Sita; Jatayu's arrival and the bird's fight scene with Ravana). I made the costumes required. Madam Menaka's dance performance was held at Thevarathu Koyikkal Palace stage and the next day at the same time our program was also held there. We tried to make our presentation a success by including some important items performed earlier along with the newly choreographed Sita Apaharan and by using all our known skills.

With the blessings of Mookambika Devi, the king, queen mother and other royal members and Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer, that program was a grand success and they personally congratulated me. Two days later, Thangamani and I were summoned to the palace and the king offered me a gold bangle and a traditional sarapoli gold chain (mala) to Thangamani. The queen mother said, "Everybody in the audience liked your performance more than Madam Menaka's." She also told Thangamani, "Do not wear tight bangles when you perform as Sita next time; instead wear loose bangles so that the grief and pain of Sita will be conveyed to the audience easily." That was her advice to us. We bowed humbly and left.

Chitrodaya Nartakalayam was apparently built again on another plot of land with great care. Why was that so and what were the dance presentations made in that newly constructed place?
Sri Chitralayam, popularly known as Sri Chitra Art Gallery established by the erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore, Sri Chitra Thirunal on the 25th of September 1935, was under the charge of Dr. Cousins. He visited the Nartakalayam whenever he came to Thiruvananthapuram. Sometimes he also used to bring foreign state guests to see us practice, which he thought was educative and aesthetically entertaining. If there were more than four guests, then chairs had to be provided in the verandah near to the window. The queen mother was informed about this problem by Dr. Cousins. So the maintenance engineer, Arunachalam Pilllai was commissioned to construct a new building to take care of this problem. We searched for a place for it. Eventually, a 2.5 acre space on the left of Pujappura Police Station was finalized for the purpose. An unused iron bungalow inside the fort was leased out for re-housing Nartakalaya. A theatre in front of the central part and behind it, the Principal's quarters and adjoining it on the left - the boys' accommodation and the girls' accommodation on the right, canteen, car shed etc. were built and completed in approximately 5 months. Dr. Cousins and the queen mother together had planned the Nartakalayam and had instructed the engineers accordingly.

The inauguration of the new building was carried out by the then Diwan (of Travancore) Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. When the Maharajas of Bikaner, Mysore and Manipur visited Thiruvananthapuram, the Maharaja, queen mother and the Diwan of Thiruvananthapuram brought them to the new theatre of Nartakalayam and watched our programs there.

Who was C.R. Reddy, what plans for change did he suggest? Were his plans implemented?
C. R. Reddy was a state guest. He visited the Nartakalayam and spent 3 hours to see the training. He suggested that the name Nartanalayam should be used instead of Nartakalayam and in addition to the existing syllabus, the development and implementation of a simple syllabus that would teach dance in schools just like drawing and drills, would help spread of the art form more. Accordingly, I met the great poet Ullur Parameshwar and asked him if I should change the name to Nartanalayam. He was not in favour of changing the name. When I told the queen mother about simplifying the syllabus and adding dance in schools, she didn't think it was necessary. She felt it would reduce the standard of dance. But according to the instructions of C.R. Reddy, I prepared different syllabus for students who wanted to take dance as a career and for the girls who danced for recreation.

What life changing event took place on the day of the inauguration of the newly constructed Nartakalayam?
Thangamani gave birth to a baby boy on the night of the inauguration of the new Nartakalayam. He was named Durgadas but unfortunately he lived only for 6 months.

Guru Gopinath
Guru Gopinath seated third from left

How did your journey to Ceylon (Srilanka) materialize?
It was during this period that the famous Canadian dancer Chitralekha (Mrs J. D. A. Pereira) came to the Nartakalayam to study. After studying for a year, she went back to Ceylon. With the help of Chitralekha and S. R. K. Menon (father of another student of mine, Indira) and Kandampally Balan, our troupe got an invitation to perform in Ceylon. We did a few events in Jaffna, Kandy and Colombo. We received a warm welcome from the Governor and the public. Approximately for two years, we continued the new Nartakalayam.

When was your second visit to Mookambika? What took you there? What ordeals did you face during this visit?
For the Annaprasan ceremony of my eldest daughter Vasanthi, Thangamani and I along with our baby daughter, with the permission of the chief officer of the palace, went to Mookambika temple. Unfortunately we received a telegram from the private secretary of the Maharaja, the very day we reached Mookambika. The message was for us to return in 2 days to Thiruvananthapuram, as a program had been arranged for Viceroy Linlithgow. We could reach Mookambika only on the third day after we started from Thiruvananthapuram. In no way could we reach Thiruvananthapuram in 2 days. Next morning I walked 16 miles to Bainthur and from there I took a bus to Kanthapuram. By 3pm, I sent a telegram to the private secretary of the palace: "There is no transport facility to reach there on the scheduled date." I returned to Mookambika after sending the telegram. Even if I hurried, I would not manage to reach Thiruvananthapuram for the program. The next morning, the Annaprasan ceremony was conducted in the temple.

I reminisced contentedly: When I was 18 years old, I had an anna of dry rice as an offering and spent 21 days in the temple verandah praying, and on my second visit, I offered 3.5 pavan (1 pavan = 8gm) gold chain, Muthukuda (decorated umbrella often offered as an offering in temples) of Rs.65, and a silk dress for the goddess worth Rs.15. The mother goddess made this possible for me. I consider it as a special and memorable event in my life. In the afternoon, we left for Thiruvananthapuram. When we reached Bainthur, all the buses to Kanthapuram had left. Thus we stayed there that night.

After a lot of ordeals we managed to reach Mangalapuram by evening. After spending the night in Mangalapuram, we boarded the Madras Mail the next morning and landed in Shornur. Thus via Ernakulam we reached Thiruvananthapuram on the third night. I had a premonition that the time had come for me to bid goodbye to Nartakalayam.

What developments made you take the decision to leave Nartakalayam?
After reaching Thiruvananthapuram, I went to meet the chief officer T Raman Nambisan in his house the next morning. He said the queen mother was angry with me for not reaching on time. She had enquired if I had gone with his permission. I asked him if he knew how far Mookambika was and what the difficulties were in getting a transport. I explained to Raman Nambisan in detail about travel glitches we faced while returning from Mookambika. After this incident, the chief officer did not give me permission to perform in any programs outside. Some programs were even cancelled.

Besides, there were other difficulties in running Nartakalayam. Even though new buildings were erected, there weren't sufficient gardeners, sweepers, cleaners and other help. The education department also stopped paying us the house rent of Rs.25. We continued getting only the grant of Rs.150. In those times, the monthly expense to manage the Nartakalayam was approximately Rs.600. And we used to meet the expenses by the earnings we got from the programs that we performed outside. The guest department used to pay only Rs.60 as travel expenses for any program in the palace. With the declining revenue from the programs, there came a time when we were out of money to run Nartakalayam.

I wrote a detailed note to the chief officer with a copy to the Diwan telling him that the money grant was enough only to care for the garden and maintaining the buildings. I requested an increase in the grant money to pay the salary for the staff and to continue the free food for the students without which it was impossible for me to manage. Nartakalayam soon came under perpetual shortage of expenses. I was appointed Principal with a meagre monthly income of Rs 150 and permission to perform 20 programs outside with a payment of more than Rs.1000. This along with the students' fees was to be used for paying the salary of the staff and team members and the rest has to be deposited in the P.A. Fund. This was the order from the chief officer. I read the order twice and summarized it to Thangamani. But she had no answer. In those times, the food expense for my family of three was almost Rs. 300. Apart from that, the expenses of the lunch offered to the students, gardener, sweeper, peon, car driver, singer, mridangist were approximately Rs. 1105 monthly. Only if we got programs from outside would we be able to meet the expenses. Thus, the situation would be very bad if we did not get at least 20 programs in a year. I had a feeling that I would be in trouble if I took responsibility according to the new order. I discussed it at length with my well-wishers G.P. Sekhar and K. C. Pillai. They came to the same conclusion and said that with the mentioned income in the order, it would be difficult to run Nartakalayam.

I came back home and sat quietly for a while and then called Thangamani, and told her that we might have to leave Nartakalayam and that I was thinking of resigning. Thangamani felt that I should follow my wish. The thoughts of quitting, the Nataraja idol in front of the Nartakalaym theatre, the mango sapling brought from Kumbakonam which now had grown into a tree and had small mangoes, the fruited banana trees (nendrampazham) kept haunting me. I spent the whole night ruminating about my position as a palace dancer. I had also earned the name of a renowned dancer of India and was blessed with a comfortable life and here I was in a dilemma!

The next morning over breakfast, I once again checked with Thangamani about leaving Nartakalayam, to which she replied "Whatever your heart wishes, I am always ready to follow you." After my puja in the evening, I made up my mind to decide what I should do as per the wishes of the goddess. I told the gardener Kuttapan to bring some Chethi poo (Ixora flowers) for puja.

I kept thinking about Rs. 8000 which I had spent for landscaping and gardening, making furniture for the house and all other extra expenses. In the evening, I wrote on two pieces of paper, "Must resign" and "Do not resign" before entering the puja room. I recited the Lalitha Sahasranaamam, offered the flowers to the idol of Devi, and the 2 folded paper chits. I prayed with all my heart to my Devi, "Jagadambe! Please guide me on what I should do and help me choose the right chit with your great benevolence." I called my daughter Vasanthi and asked her to pick one of the chits. With great trepidation I opened the chit - "Must resign". I heaved a sigh of relief and nurtured no more doubts in my mind. I went straight to the office room to write my resignation letter.

"Respected Palace Chief Officer,
I received the latest order from you regarding the management decisions of Nartakalayam. I humbly request you to relieve me from my duties of Nartakalayam as I am of the opinion that I will be confronted with various difficulties in running the organization successfully in accordance with the new rules in the order. I will always be grateful till death to the Maharaja and the Maharani for their encouragement and assistance given to me all through."

I signed the letter in all humility. I brought kumkum from the puja room and imprinted a small dot on the Nataraja picture on the letterhead and put it in an envelope. Two days later, on a Sunday night, I along with my team boarded a bus to Kharagpur as I had accepted 2 programs there with prior permission. I thought of handing over the letter to the palace peon late in the afternoon on Monday by 3. After lunch, I slept peacefully.

What specific reason did you have to hand over your resignation letter late?
I remembered the case of Ramakrishna Pillai who in spite of being very patriotic was deported during the royal rule. And if anything like that would have been planned in my case, we would have by then left the state and reached Trichy. On Sunday, before leaving the city, I gave my resignation letter and the delivery book to the palace peon and ordered him to hand over the letter to the palace office after 3pm on Monday.

While returning after the Kharagpur program, I dropped Thangamani and Vasanthi at my student's mother's place. And I left with my team to Thiruvananthapuram, so that if at all they arrest me once I reach Thiruvananthapuram, at least my wife and daughter would be safe. That is the precise reason why I asked them to stay in Madras.

The next day after reaching Thiruvananthapuram, I visited the chief officer at his house. He said, "Gopinath, I have received your resignation letter. When did you return from Kharagpur? I haven't informed the king about your letter yet. I thought of talking to you before doing so. Don't resign in such haste. The rules in the new order can be modified according to your convenience. We can inform the king after some time. Private secretary Krishnamurthy might have forced you to take such a step." I replied, "Sir, I haven't made a single mistake in the last 9 years of my service. I went to Mookambika temple after taking your permission. After receiving the telegram from the private secretary, I was unable to reach here on time. Other than this, there is nothing else that I have done that can cause displeasure."

(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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