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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 7
- Tapati Chowdhurie

January 26, 2022

All parts of the interview

The story so far
Guru Gopinath who had joined Esther Luella Sherman in introducing Kathakali to the world outside Kerala is a name to reckon with in dance. He is the founder of Kerala Natanam, which simplified Kathakali while remaining true to its roots. He had mesmerized Poet Rabindranath Tagore with his performance in Santiniketan, who wanted his niece Indira Devi Chaudhurani to introduce his style to the students of Santiniketan. He became the Palace Dancer of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. The present piece deals with facts when he resigns from his post at Nartakalayam as the Palace Dancer and settles in Madras to seek a life of dance.

The Seventh Part

Was Krishnamurthy, the Private Secretary of the Maharaja, displeased with you because you showed little interest in the goings on of palace happenings? Did he misconstrue your lack of curiosity in the affairs of the palace?
It is advisable to call it a day, while the going is good. I have always been respectful to Krishnamurthy. I have never tried using dubious means to get things done. Often while going back and forth from Kavadiar Palace to his home in Karamana, Krishnamurthy has seen me standing and talking to somebody or the other in front of the old Nartakalayam building. As a matter of fact I have never paid any attention to people walking in or going out of the palace. I have never ever indulged in talking unnecessarily to anyone coming out of the palace. During the Tirunal festival, when the Maharaja was carried on a palanquin accompanied by the palace employees, I never took part in it.

Was this the bone of contention for Krishnamurthy? Did he ask you why you remained aloof?
Once, Krishnamurthy did ask me, "Gopi, why are you not participating in the festivals and other palace programs?" To which I replied, "I have not been asked to participate in these festivals and also I am not an employee of the palace." There could be no other reason for the Private Secretary to feel hostile towards me than these. I requested him to accept my resignation and inform the Maharaja about it. And once the formalities were done, to inform me about it. After this conversation I left.

Masterji, when did you receive your release orders from Nartakalayam?
After a week, I received a letter from the main officer of the palace mentioning that I have been removed from the position and status of a palace dancer and have to hand over everything that belonged to the palace to the clerk and that I can take everything that belonged to me. After two days, the head clerk Sivarama Iyer came and took away some stage decor items, chairs, benches, tables etc from Nartakalayam. I signed a paper stating that I have collected all my belongings. The head clerk completed his job in two hours, and informed the Main Officer of the palace about it. Later, he locked all the things in Nartakalayam in a room and left.

Guru Gopinath
Guru Gopinath
(Photo courtesy: Sashimohan)

Were you stranded in the city with this sort of an abrupt end?
I was actually not stranded. The same day, I received an invitation letter from the Secretary of Vikramaditya Dance Festival, Bombay. The address however mentioned my position as the 'Palace Dancer', when I had already resigned.

I showed the letter to my friend G.P. Sekhar. According to Sekhar's advice I replied to the letter the same day stating that I had resigned from the post of palace dancer, but I was ready to perform with my team and Thankamani. I mentioned my new address as C/o G.P. Sekhar, Theruveedu, Punnapuram.

What did you do with all your belongings from Nartakalayam when finally you left it?
In the next two days, all my belongings like chairs, tables, cupboard, safe etc were shifted to my younger brother's house in Vattiyoorkavu.

When did you set your roots in Vattiyoorkavu?
On May 19, 1942, Thangamani and I bought a 16 acre 81 cent land in Vattiyoorkavu by paying Rs.13, 200. We had built a small house there and asked my brother to stay there. Normally, artists face difficulties during their old age, and I did not want myself or my family to suffer in the same way. So we bought that piece of land. Now, at the age of 76, I am benefitted with that decision.

Where did you keep the things which you did not send to Vattiyoorkavu?
I kept some of the remaining things in G.P. Sekhar's house. I distributed my provisions of 50 para (paddy measuring unit in Malayalam) of grains to the driver, gardener and the cook.

When did you finally leave Nartakalayam?
On the 3rd day, after my shower I went to the Puja room. After offering my prayers to Devi, I took the idol of Devi and placed it in the car. Next I went to the idol of Nataraja - which I had bought at Madras installed in front of Nartakalayam and circled around it 3 times and I left in the car to G.P. Sekhar's house. After that I went to Bhaktivilasam to meet the Diwan and his Private Secretary, S. Chidambaram to bid them goodbye. The Diwan asked me in Tamil, "Hey, Gopinath, you are leaving?" I responded in Tamil, "Yes, Sir". He asked me where I was going. I replied, "To the city of Madras." He nodded his head and said, "I wish you every success." I bowed and left.

Chidambaram actually offered me accommodation in his house in Madras, till I found myself a proper residence in the city.

Did you accept his offer? What discussions did you have with him regarding your stay in Madras?
I told him that after my program in Kharagpur, I have already left Thangamani and Vasanthi to stay with Janu Akka in Madras. Chidambaram was ok with that. So I would naturally have to stay there, I said. I then spoke at length with him over coffee about the formation of a school and a dance company in Madras, before bidding him goodbye and promising to write to him as soon as I reached Madras. We were friendly with Chidambaram since the time his daughter Lakshmi joined me for dance lessons. They are residents of Palakkad Kalpathy. I fondly remember the support of Lakshmi's family, whenever I wear the Navaratna ring that was gifted to me during her marriage.

I came with the necessary things from Thiruvananthapuram to Madras. At first I went to the place where my daughter and Thangamani were staying. Thangamani was sad as she had no news of me for two weeks. I told her and the family members of everything that happened in Thiruvananthapuram.

What were your initial days in Madras like?
At that moment, an acquaintance of mine S.A. Iyer came to see me. He was the production manager at the time of 'Prahlada' movie. Karamana is his birthplace. I told him that I have left Nartakalayam and have permanently shifted to Madras. I also requested him to arrange for me a rented house to stay. He agreed to let us rent for Rs 125, the ground floor of 142, Durgalayam House, which was his residence. Consequently, we went to see his house at Lloyds Road. It had all the basic necessities needed for a living. He gave us the house without taking any advance rent. It suited us in every way. The next morning we moved there.

When I left Nartakalayam, my students Shankaran Kutty (Prof Shankaran Kutty), Sumathy, singer Bharati Amma, mridangam player Subramaniam were the only members with me in Nartakalayam. The rest of the students had left for their hometown. I did not take anyone to Madras. During the first week of our stay in Madras, we ordered meals from hotels. The breakfast was provided by S.A. Iyer. Meanwhile, we also thought about our future. Thangamani was pregnant at that time.

Did you finally go to Bombay to perform at the Vikramaditya Dance Festival from where you had received a letter before coming? What were your preparations for this festival?
G.P. Sekhar sent me a letter from the Vikramaditya Dance Festival Committee and a draft of Rs. 1000. That was the advance payment with the program dates. Immediately we arranged for a female singer and a mridangam player from Madras. Some students who had left for their hometown from Nartakalayam were also called to Madras and along with maddalam player Shankara Kurup we started our rehearsals. We bought some jewellery and crowns from Nadamuni company and left for Bombay. Since we had reserved a compartment for 22 people, we also did our rehearsal during our journey. During those times, any compartment which had such a reservation was blocked for other passengers. Now, it isn't like that. Also, artist groups in those times had to pay only half the ticket price. We reached Bombay two days before the program. The Vikramaditya Mahotsava Committee had arranged for a guest house - Parasuramapriya Guest House - from a wealthy businessman, for our stay. After we reached there, we rehearsed and I choreographed the scenes for the program. We also bought some nice skirts and ornaments from there.

Guru Gopinath and Thangamani
Guru Gopinath as Kirata and his relative Chellappan Pillai as Arjuna
(Photo courtesy: Tapati Chowdhurie)

How successful was your Bombay program?
The day we reached Bombay, Madam Maneka, the famous Kathak dancer, was to perform. The next day Ram Gopal and party were to perform. Thangamani and I went to see both the programs. We could study more about the stage directions and light arrangements by watching their performance. We reached early on the day of our program and gave instructions to the light man and the curtain arranger. They set them accordingly. I placed the silver idol of Mookambika Devi whom I worship daily on a peetham (altar/bench) covered with a red cloth at the center of the stage. I also put two Nilavilakku (lamps) with 7 wicks each on two sides of the stage. I asked them to switch off the bulbs and lights placed in front of the stage. With the sound of a conch we opened the curtains. Two spotlights of blue colour were lit from two sides. Two female dancers, one from each side entered with flower thalam (plates) and did a Pushpanjali and rangapuja and offered it to Shri Mookambika.

Once the dancers finished their performance and bowed to the Devi, the curtains were closed. Instantly, the hall echoed with claps from the audience. Soon after, Nataraja Tandavam, Jathiswaram, Radha Krishna, Sundhopasundha and Tilottama were performed one after the other. After a short break we performed Harvest dance, Gopi dance, Bhasmasura Mohini, Geethopadesham and at the end of the program all the dancers together did the Mangalam. It was God's grace that once the program was over - people from the press, art lovers, committee members, all came to the dressing room to congratulate us. The dance critics from The Times of India and Bombay Chronicles mentioned that ours was the best program in the festival. The Vikramaditya Festival Committee President and Secretary came and paid the remaining money in an envelope mentioning that they are paying us an extra Rs.500 because they had liked the program very much. I respectfully thanked them and came back to our guest house satisfied. I reminisced about everything specially about how I had lost the status of a palace dancer; how I left the Nartakalayam; all the loss I incurred and the difficulties I faced, the non-stop rehearsals in the train etc. But now I was very happy with the success of the program in Bombay and the extra money that we got paid. This was only due to the grace and blessings of Shri Mookambika Devi; thus I prayed and went to sleep. The next day, we took a train back to Madras. The group members returned to their respective homes, while Thangamani and I went to Durgalayam.

What was to be your work in Madras and how did it materialize?
We spent the next 3 days without any idea of our future. On the morning of the fourth day, when I was coming out from the Puja room, the film director K Subramaniam alighted from his car. He took me to the house of S. Chidambaram at 18 Ganesha Street. There, in the presence of the daughter of his elder brother Chidambaram and student Lakshmi's foster mother, true art lover Janaki Ammal, Subramaniam appointed me the dance director of the movie 'Narthanamurali' with a monthly salary of Rs 2000 and paid me an advance of Rs 1000 immediately. He also invited dancers and two other people for orchestra from my team with a total monthly salary of Rs.2400. He made a payment of Rs 500 for their travel from Kerala to Madras. After that, he dropped me at my residence. Immediately I sent a money order to bring the appointed team members to Madras and rented another flat for their stay.

This is my second experience where I offered pavazhamalli (parijatham) flowers to Devi during a difficult situation and it got resolved quickly. The first experience was during the time of my marriage with Thangamani. When my marriage to her became next to impossibility, her father had come to my house to fix the date of marriage. After these two experiences, I planted pavazhamalli plant in my garden and used it daily for worship. I continue that practice till date.

When did you start your institution Natana Niketan in Madras?
During the time of the film 'Narthanamurali,' my working hours were from morning 9:30am to evening 4:30pm. If I started a dance school then I had time from 7:30 to 9am in the morning and 5 - 6:30pm in the evening to train the students. Dr. P Marthanda Pillai, Corporation Counselor Kamalakannan Mudaliar, film director Subramaniam, Janaki Ammal encouraged me to start a dance school whenever I broached the subject to them.

There was a two storied building opposite to the place where I was put up and the ground floor of the building was empty which had a large hall and a few rooms. This building belonged to Advocate Shenoy who had not rented it to anyone. Once I started staying at Durgalayam, I used to greet Adv Shenoy on a daily basis. But we never spoke to each other. When I asked S.A. Iyer about a space to open a dance school, he said that the ground floor of the building opposite to where I stayed was unoccupied. He wanted me to approach Shenoy directly and request him to give me that space. Mr. Shenoy doesn't speak to his neighbours. I decided to ask him. I went up to his mansion one day and rang the door bell. He was reading a newspaper. He invited me inside and asked me what I wanted. "Sir, I wish to start a dance school and I have been searching for a space, but in vain. I cannot use the building on the main road to teach dance. So, I humbly request you, if I can rent your ground floor for the same purpose."

"Mr. Gopinath, many people have asked for the space that you are talking about, but I have never agreed to do so. Initially they will pay the rent on time but eventually they will stop paying and then I have to file a case against them to evacuate. That is why I do not want to rent it out to anyone. But I have heard about you from the newspapers even before you came to stay here. I have understood that you are an ardent worshipper of Devi. You are also asking for the place for a good purpose but let me tell you that if you cook there, then there will be smoke. If you sign an agreement to say that you won't cook there and pay a monthly rent of Rs.300, then I can give you that place," he said. Even though the rent was a bit high, there was no other space in Lloyds Road where the dancers could stay and use the space. Thus I agreed and signed on the agreement paper. I also paid an advance rent of Rs. 300. Later, I put advertisements in newspapers like The Hindu, Indian Express etc that Gopinath and Thangamani are conducting classes for Indian classical dance in Natana Niketan at 143, Lloyds Road. By seeing that ad, lots of students who were Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada speaking came and enrolled for classes in Natana Niketan. Morning classes for boys and evening for girls and 3 classes for each group in a week were scheduled. To reach out to more crowds the fee was minimal. We started off with 4 batches of 64 students. Thus, after morning class got over, I started for my job in the film Narthanamurali at the Kalavani film company in Mylapore at 9:30 sharp and then starting the evening classes at the correct time became a routine.

In Madras, Thangamani and I became well known and we had students joining in from time to time. There were also female dancers from Rajamundry and Bellary who stayed in Madras on rent just to learn dance. Almost within 2 months, Natana Niketan became famous in Madras. There were also dancers (both male and female) who came from Ceylon for a short term of 3 months to learn dance from us.

Every month I got an income of Rs 3500 from Kalavani (for my job in the film), the fees from the students and the income from the cultural programs that were held in the night in the military camp. I deposited the remaining money after my expenses in the bank. My car in Thiruvananthapuram was transported by train to Madras.

Why did Subramaniam discontinue Narthanamurali?
Unfortunately, due to the sudden illness of the Marwari businessman who also got bedridden and who was providing funds for the film, the film company operated only for 6 months. Due to financial crisis, Subramaniam decided not to continue with Narthanamurali. I then focused more on forming a dance group and school activities. We got more programs after we left Narthanamurali from the state of Madras and earned much more from the cultural programs.

What made you invest in Spinning Mill shares?
At this point, one N. J. Nair who was known to me came to meet me in Madras. He was establishing a spinning mill in Thirumala in Thiruvananthapuram and requested me to buy 50 shares of 100 rupees each. Without a second thought I bought shares worth Rs 5000.

(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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