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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 8
- Tapati Chowdhurie

February 10, 2022

All parts of the interview

The story so far
After resigning from the post of the Palace Dancer, Guru Gopinath left Nartakalayam depositing his belongings in the humble dwelling he had built in the plot of land he had bought in Vattiyoorkavu and settled in Madras (Chennai). He had rented the ground floor of S.A. Iyer who lived in Lloyds Road and who was at that time the Production Manager of the film 'Prahlada.' With his help, Guruji became the dance director of 'Narthanamurali' under film director K. Subrahmanyam. Around the same time, he opened his dance school Natana Niketan.

The Eighth Part

What made you buy Rs. 5000 worth of Spinning Mills shares from N.J. Nair and how profitable were these?
Firstly, I knew that N.J. Nair was a renowned businessman from Mumbai. I also came to know from the newspapers that shareholders of Tata Company had received a good interest from the Spinning Mills shares. So I expected that I would get good interest money from these shares I had bought. Besides, N.J. Nair had also paid us a good amount of money for the 60th birth anniversary of his mother at Manakkattu. Those days, I was a palace dancer staying at Thiruvananthapuram. These reasons induced me to buy shares from him. After the establishment of Vijayamohini Mill, I received the interest money of Rs. 600 only twice. I did not receive any interest from 1946 to 1984. That was the only financial transaction I made that resulted in a loss.

What measures did you adopt in Madras for a steady income?
After we settled in Madras, we composed few dance dramas in Tamil for our programs, so we were invited for most exhibitions held in the state.

How did you acquire a home in Madras and finally settle down to teaching and performing?
My well-wisher S. A. Iyer and I bought 15 ground coconut plantations in Gopalapuram for which we paid Rs 25,000. We divided the land equally into two portions. I took 7.5 grounds on the southern part and S. A. Iyer took 7.5 grounds on the northern side. We bought this land towards the end of 1946 and within the next 8 months, we both constructed houses on our respective lands and started residing there.

I built a special Kalari there to train the kids. I shifted my school Natana Niketan to the new premises. I brought all my furniture that I had from Vattiyoorkavu to my new house. After that, I ordered a yavam (yavam in Malayalam is a weight unit) silver moulded idol of Sri Mookambika Devi from Sucheendram which was used for Chakrapuja during Grihapravesham (house warming) and later installed it in my puja room for my daily worship. Surprisingly, another miracle happened. Within a week the Arangetram of one of my students from Andhra Pradesh took place. Madhura Devi gifted me a silver idol of Lord Nataraja of the same size as that of the Mookambika idol. I placed that idol also in my puja room.

After shifting Natana Niketan to my own place in Madras, students (both male and female) from overseas like America, France, Germany, Mexico, Ceylon etc and from India like Uttar Pradesh, Kolkata, Mysore, Andhra etc came for short periods of training in Kathakali from time to time.

Guru Gopinath with his students Suniti, Geetha Banerjee and Mrs. KS Kothari
In Delhi with his students Suniti, Geetha Banerjee and Mrs. KS Kothari
(Courtesy: Sashimohan)

Can you share some memories of those times?
A memorable incident took place in my artistic life, while I was training Nandita Kripalani from Kolkata. She was the daughter of Mira Devi - the fourth child of poet Rabindranath Tagore. I was teaching her 'Samyamakannorudhyaname,' a padam in Kathakali from Nala Charitham. There is a line in the padam "Garvitha hamsa kokakreedathadakamithu " where I was demonstrating the play of a swan in a lake (Hamsathinte jala kreeda). Nandita said, "Mr. Gopinath, you are holding the wings of the swan playing in water upwards. It would be better if you hold it downwards as it would look more real. While playing in water, a swan does not raise its wings upwards. If you change that, it would not be wrong, right?"

When I heard that, I realised that what I was teaching was not true to life. I accepted her suggestion. I was merely teaching what I had learnt in my Kathakali learning days, which had taught me to hold Bhramara mudra on both hands, raise the fingers up on both sides of the shoulders and moving the wrists of each hand. In Kathakali, the flights of swans, peacocks and garuda are all shown in the same way both before and now. In fact, these mudrabinaya need to be changed contextually. Unthinkingly we have been following what we had been taught since ages. Following Nandita's suggestion, I bent the Bhramara mudra down to show the swan's play in water and I felt that she looked satisfied. After that incident, I started verifying the angika movements which I learnt from my teachers before applying it for any character or sthayi in my compositions. I realised that day that it's necessary to bring contextual changes in dance and drama. My future programs and training incorporated this line of thinking, with the hope that I do not repeat the incident that happened with Nandita.

How did you manage your finances towards the running of Natana Niketan?
Kozhippurathu Madhava Menon was the Education Minister at that time in Madras. The Finance Minister was one of my respected friends, B. Gopala Reddy. Both of them were trying to obtain a government grant for Natana Niketan. I had not applied for a grant because of the involved formalities to be done. I had an easy flow of money to run Natana Niketan without the grant money.

Starting from 1931 how would you sum up your life of creativity for the next two decades?
From 1931 to 1950, I was able to perform on stage the different classical art forms of different places, watch a lot of village arts, and I was able to incorporate a lot of elements from the Natya Shastra into my dance and dance dramas. It is worth mentioning here, that Amma Maharani's (queen mother's) suggestions and criticisms were instrumental in raising the standard of my work and making my dance life in Thiruvananthapuram of a certain class and grandeur. I published my book 'Abhinayamukuram' based on the science of dance.

The then Education Minister of Bikaner, Sardar K. M. Panicker, had penned a poem praising me. He sent it to me on the 12th of August 1939 from Bikaner. That was a great boost which helped me go forward. During my stay in Madras, I imitated and took photos of all the 108 Natya Shastra dance poses carved inside the Chidambaram temple and published a book in English called 'Classical Dance Poses.' The introductory note was written by P. V. Rajamannar, the then chief judge of Madras High Court.

What made your father believe that you had been dismissed by the king from the post of the Palace Dancer?
When I went to visit my parents in Chembakulam, I came to know that there was a rumour in places like Chembakulam, Nedumudi and Thakazhi that I had gone to Madras because the king had dismissed me, which was far from the truth. My father asked me, "Is it true that the Maharaja has expelled you from the post of the palace dancer?"
I replied, "By the grace of Goddess Mookambika, nothing of the sort has happened. My resignation letter was accepted by the palace office without any hindrance. I have taken all my belongings from Nartakalayam except the statue of Nataraja to Madras and kept them in my new home."

Since I went away suddenly to Madras when I was a palace dancer in Thiruvananthapuram, people may have started gossiping. I think a lot of people still believe that I was dismissed.

What was the good news you received when you were leaving for Madras?
When I was leaving for Madras, I came to know about the wedding of Shakuntala, my disciple in Thiruvananthapuram. She was the eldest daughter of C.R. Pattabhiraman, the son of Diwan C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. My troupe was commissioned for a performance at his residence in Alwarpet. The Diwan paid me Rs.1500 for it and also enquired about my dance school and life in Madras.

What offer did Maharaja Chithira Thirunal make after he vacated his post as the Maharaja of Thiruvithamcore (Travancore)?
Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Thampuran, Amma Maharani (queen mother) and other royal members came to Madras and were staying for three months at the Thiruvithamcore palace in Adyar. At that point, Hariharan came to my house and asked me if it would be convenient for me to teach dance for a few days to the siblings Ashwathy Thirunal and Puyam Thirunal, the daughters of the queen mother Karthika Thirunal Lakshmi Bai. He also asked me about what I would charge. I told Hariharan that I would happily accept whatever is offered to me by the king, but I would never ask the members of the Travancore royal family for any fees.

He conveyed this to the king and the very next morning, a messenger came with a note for me asking me to go to the palace in the evening at 5pm and teach dance to the ladies. I was also asked if I needed a conveyance. I told the messenger that I would come in my own car to the palace. As I was about to leave for the palace, my 3 year old son said that he wanted to meet the Maharaja. A photo of a crowned Maharaja was kept in my house. I had told him that the photo was of the Maharaja of Thiruvithamcore and that I had been a dependent of the king for some years.

On the way, we bought a garland of roses from Mylapore and reached the palace. On our arrival, the king and queen mother came to the visiting room. I bowed according to prevailing protocol and handed over the garland to my son to present it to the king.
Then my son asked me, "Appa, why is the king without a crown?" In consternation, I closed his mouth with my palm.
The king smiled and said, "He has asked a valid question."
I panicked and informed the king, "There is a picture of you in my house taken during one of your processions. In that you are wearing a crown and I informed him that the picture is of you. I seek your forgiveness for the same."

The queen mother said, "Ashwathy Thirunal and Puyam Thirunal wish to learn dance from you. You can teach them 'Ranga Puja' and 'Deer and Sita' dance."
"I would indeed be very happy to teach them," I said.
She asked me to start from that day itself. Accordingly, I started training them from that day onwards. Within a month, I taught them both the items. As for my remuneration, Hariharan gave me a draft of Rs.750.
Aswathy Thirunal offered me 2 chocolates every day when I took their class. I remember that gesture every time I start teaching a new student.

Guru Gopinath as Poothana in the Malayalam movie Bhakta Kuchela
Guruji as Poothana in the Malayalam movie 'Bhakta Kuchela'
(Courtesy: Sashimohan)

Masterji, I have heard that you have taught Lalitha and Padmini who lived on Edward Elliot's Rd in Madras.
I used to go to Madras occasionally to conduct classes for Lalitha and Padmini who acquired fame in dance and cinema as Travancore Sisters. I used to teach them while they were in Thiruvananthapuram. This teacher-student relationship lasted for a long time. One day I had to push start the Standard car I was using. When Lalitha came to know about the incident, she ordered by phone a Morris Minor car from Simpson Company. And one day when I went to Lalitha and Padmini's house to take their class, they gave me the car. After the class, I reached home in the new car. I told Thangamani about it. "If you accept this car, then we have to remain forever indebted to them," she said. She asked me to return the car to the company through the driver and tell them we will buy this later.

As per Thangamani's wishes, I returned the car to the company but I did not inform Lalitha. After that, within a week I bought a Hindustan 14 for Rs.12500. One night when I reached Lalitha's house at 8pm to take their class, she asked me if the car was good or not. "It's good." I replied quickly and left. One day, I went in the morning to take their class and Lalitha saw my Hindustan car.

"Gopi chetta (Chetta in Malayalam means 'Elder brother'), this is a Hindustan model, I gave you a Morris Minor that day?"
"Kunje (an affectionate term for kids), in that car we can enter only through one door. With kids, it is uncomfortable to get into that car. So that very day I sent it back to the Simpson Company.
This car I bought later from the Lakshmana Prasad Company."
Lalitha said, "Then I will pay you that money, Gopi chetta."
I responded, "Lalitha, now I have already paid for that car. If ever I have financial difficulty, I would surely take your help."

Tell us about your 1955 visit to Russia.
On 18th August 1955, I received a letter from the private secretary of our Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. It said Panditji has asked me to participate in the Indian cultural delegation that he was sending to Russia and that I should reach Delhi along with my passport on the 21st August. I immediately went to see the Commissioner of Police, Parthasarathy Iyengar to arrange for my passport. On the way, I went to Lalitha - Padmini's house and arranged a special suit from India Silk Company, which would reach me by the 20th for my trip to Russia. I went to their shop and selected the material for a coat and breeches and a tailor took my measurements. During those days, it wasn't possible to get a set of suits stitched in 2 days. Later, I reached the Commissioner's office and requested the Police Commissioner, Parthasarathy Iyengar to release my passport. I showed him the letter from the Prime Minister to expedite matters. Since we knew each other from the time he was a Police Commissioner in Thiruvananthapuram, I could speak to him freely. He immediately spoke to the Home Secretary and later called a head constable with whom we went to the Home Department and ordered him to hand over my passport the very same day. We both reached the secretariat. I signed some forms. In an hour and a half, I got my passport. The Police Commissioner wished me luck for my Russian tour and I thanked him sincerely. I did the rest of the preparations after reaching home.

The tailor brought my suit home on the 20th. While enquiring about the bill and the cost of it all, he said that Lalitha has already paid for it. This is the first time I came to possess a suit. I used to wear dhoti, shirt and a shawl. I flew to Delhi on the 21st and informed the cultural department of my arrival. They took my passport and arranged for my stay at Kota House on Shahjahan Road. On the 22nd evening, the Russian ambassador organized a reception for the cultural team members at the Russian Embassy in Delhi. At that time, I came to know the other members of the cultural team - sitarist Ravi Shankar, Bharatanatyam dancer Tara Chowdhary and team, veena player K.V. Narayanaswamy, Hindustani vocalist Pt. Patwardhan, music scholars Meera Banerjee, Surendra Kaur, and a Manipuri team. We were led by the then Central Government Deputy Minister Marakatham Chandrasekhar, Director of AIR, K. S. Malik and Cultural Department secretary Vikram Singh. Central minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and other officers also accompanied us. The very next day, all the members from the cultural team had to perform in Delhi. The Prime Minister came to see our program. At the end of the event, Panditji (Pt Jawaharlal Nehru) came onto the stage and said, "You are the members of the first cultural team to go to Russia. So, you are responsible to convince the Russians of the high standard of Indian art and culture."

On August 24, we boarded the Air India flight Boeing 707 to Moscow. We reached on the 25th. K.P.S. Menon who was the then Russian ambassador, his wife and other Russian officers came to receive the members of the cultural delegation at the airport. They took us to a big hotel in Moscow for our stay. On 27th August 1955, we presented our cultural program at the famous Bolshoi Theatre. Bulganin, Khrushchev, other ministers, officers, Indian ambassador K.P.S. Menon and his wife were present to see the program. I presented 'Navarasaprakatanam', 'Mudrabhinayam', 'Vamana Mahabali'. Since I did not have my orchestra team with me, my Navarasa and Mudrabhinayam was the second item in the program. I performed the Sringaradi Navarasas with the descriptions of the verses in their order. There were announcements in the Russian language. At the end of each one, I froze into a special pose, which was announced by the Master of Ceremonies.

The audience applauded as I performed each of the emotions. When I performed the different rasas - sringaram, veeram, karuna, hasyam, atbutham, bhayanakam, bheebatsam, raudram, shantam - the audience clapped all the nine times and when I showed the mudras of water, lotus, beetle, fish, crocodile, deer, peacock, elephant, monkey and lion, the audience clapped loudly again and again all the ten times. Altogether, the audience had clapped 20 times during my performance including the time I left the stage at the end of my program. Marakatham Chandrasekhar asked me to go on stage and bow once again. So, instead of the normal bow or namaskaram, I flew into the stage like a Garuda from one end to the other and disappeared.

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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