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An imaginary interview with Guru Gopinath - Part 9
- Tapati Chowdhurie

March 26, 2022

All parts of the interview

The story so far
Guru Gopinath's settling down in Madras; his quest for a home in the city; buying of a piece of land in Gopalapuram; building a home and shifting his newly founded school Natana Niketan there; arrival of aspirants from USA, France, Germany, Mexico, Srilanka and the various states of India for brief periods to be trained by him; coming of Nandita Kripalani - granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore - to learn under him; summing up of his life of creativity from 1931 to 1950 - an important phase of his life; publication of his book 'Classical dance poses' in English with an introductory note by P.V. Rajamannar, the chief judge of Madras High Court; training his illustrious star students Lalitha-Padmini and the daughters of Amma Maharani - the sisters of Maharaja Chithira Tirunal-when they came to Madras to live for three months in their palace in Adyar; his visit to Russia in 1955 as a member of the cultural delegation - were some of the highlights of his life he has discussed extensively.

The 9th part of the imaginary interview

Guruji, tell us about your performances in the various places in USSR...
During my very first stage appearance in Russia, it was heartening to see the audience encouraging me again and again to continue. Thus inspired, I enacted a running horse. Then I played the role of a young girl combing her long hair before tying it into a bun, after which I mimed how she went to the garden and plucked fragrant flowers and adorned her hair-do with them and when she spotted the arrival of her lover, she drew aimlessly on the ground with her toe, her eyes cast down shyly, looking up at him now and then with surreptitious coyness. Seeing me imitating a young girl and her coyness, specially when she is stealing looks at her lover, the audience applauded spontaneously non-stop. After finishing, I came to the centre of the stage right and bowed humbly and reverently with my eyes lowered and stood still. The curtain came down.

My performance was followed by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar's concert. Then followed folk music, veena concert one after the other. There was a short break after this, followed by my 'Mahabali Vamana' in Pakarnattam style, which is one of the greatest acting techniques of Indian theatre where an artiste as an actor portrays emotions of multiple characters. I requested the mridangist of Bharatanatyam dance and Manipuri gong player to accompany my piece. As soon as I appeared on stage dressed like Mahabali, the audience broke into applause because that was the first time the Russian audience was exposed to a costume with a crown and ornaments worn in a performance. The mridangist and the gong artiste played eka talam, based on which I did my foot movements and anga (body) movements to show the heroic deeds and generous quality of Mahabali in syllables of 8 (Chempada), syllables of 7 (Triputa), syllables of 6 (Panchari), syllables of 5 (Jhampa), syllables of 1 and 3 quarters (Muri Adanda) talams. I had also placed a foot mike in front of the stage for the audience to hear the sound of my ankle bells for the different talams. I ended the segment with Mahabali showing off his magnanimous quality as one who bestows rich alms and concluded it with the impressive 'Valiyakalasham' - Kathakali kalashams that I had learnt during my childhood. To do this, I maintained the base talam as Jhampa throughout, and brought about a climax with movements in Panchari, Triputa, Chempada, Marma talams (rhythms) through Valiyakalasham which has the toughest hand and feet movements in Kathakali. As soon as I finished with Valiyakalasham, the audience gave thunderous applause.

Later in the role of Vamana, I humbly requested Mahabali to give me land enough to take three steps, which Mahabali was going to grant, when Sukracharya who was the head priest of King Bali warned him that Lord Vishnu had himself come as Vamana to humble him and that there was danger in accepting his (Vamana's) request. King Bali was happy that the lord himself had come down to ask him for alms and was more than eager to grant his wish. Sukran as his head priest was required to ratify the act of granting three steps asked by Vamana by reciting a special mantra and pouring water from a vessel. To prevent granting of three steps space to Vamana, Sukran put a blade of grass (darbha pull) to block holy water from flowing from the mouth of the vessel. Lord Vishnu, who was aware of the trick played by Sukran, used the blade of grass as his weapon to hit Sukran's eye blinding him, and allowing the flow of water from the nozzle of the vessel. I mimed everything in great detail, including the damaging of Sukran's one eye with the blade of grass - in Pakarnattam style. After measuring the earth and heaven in 2 steps, Vamana asked Mahabali where he should put the third step to which, I dressed as Mahabali, removed the huge golden crown from my head and placed it in front of Vamana and asked him to place his foot on my head. Subsequently shifting my role as Vamana and placing my feet on Mahabali's head and shifting to the role of Mahabali again with Vamana's one foot on my head, I enacted the role of being pushed down to the netherworld. So ended the play. The audience went into a deafening applause.

Guru Gopinath
Guru Gopinath

What was the reaction of the Russian Prime Minister Bulganin who was watching the play?
I was told that after seeing me doing Mahabali and Vamana, the then Prime Minister of Russia, Bulganin had asked the Indian Ambassador K.P.S. Menon whether communism had originated in India.

Tell us about the feast that took place after your performance and what imprint did it make on you?
While I was changing my costume after the cultural program came to an end, the private secretary of K.P.S. Menon came to the green room and intimated to me to meet Mr. Menon. I removed the big moustache that was pasted on my face and without removing my makeup, I covered myself with a kasavu dhoti and went to meet the diplomat with the private secretary. He opened the door of a room and led me inside. K.P.S. Menon said, "Come Gopinath, the program was excellent." Saying this he took me to a spaciously decorated dining hall, where I felt like Kuchela in Dwaraka. I saw the tables were like glowing sapphire; the floor covered with red velvet carpet; golden simhasan (throne) like chairs and matching electric lights and similar other things. And there was a grand feast laid out. The leader of our cultural group Marakatham Chandrasekhar, Director Malik, secretary Vikram Singh and myself were the only members of the cultural group present at the feast - with me being the only artiste invited.

I have a suspicion that it was K.P.S. Menon's love for me which had prompted an invite for me to this grand feast that day. Mrs. Menon offered me a seat next to her. As a matter of fact, I sat like Kuchela who was forced to sit on the hanging couch by Sri Krishna. I was a simpleton born in a house in Kuttanad surrounded by water on all sides. As a child, I used to paddle in a small boat when my mother asked me to bring burning charcoal in a coconut shell, which I placed on the headboard of the boat; learning Kathakali flashed in my mind's eye. I sat there calmly accepting the shower of gifts and blessings of Mookambika Devi. When the Russian PM Bulganin arrived at the party with the other ministers and officials, K.P.S. Menon introduced to him the members of the cultural group. Everyone took their chairs for the feast. Bulganin took a glass of wine and made a toast looking at me and spoke in the Russian language. He said in Russian language, "If India, China and Russia work together and cooperate with each other with the same peace (shanti and samadhanam) that we now see on this brave man's face (Gopinath) then we would be able to achieve the same peace and tranquility in the world." Saying this, he clinked his wine glass with that of K.P.S. Menon, who translated the substance of Bulganin's speech to me in Malayalam.

When we returned to our dwelling after dinner, the memories of joy and sorrow in my days of innocence passed in my mind one by one. I fell asleep in the comforting thought that I could reach this position due to the blessings of Mookambika Devi.

Guru Gopinath in Navarasa
Guru Gopinath in Navarasa

Why did Pt Ravi Shankar want your Navarasa to be the 4th or 5th item in the program rather than the first and how was the issue resolved?
Next morning, when all the members of the cultural group came together, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar said that if Gopinath performs first then the next item will not excel and suggested that from next time, Gopinath's Navarasa should be placed as the 4th or 5th item in a program. To which I said that since I perform Navarasa without using either vocal or instrumental music, it's better to drop Navarasa from the program if I cannot perform it in the beginning. K.S. Malik and Vikram Singh intervened and tried to change the order of the items in the program, but since Marakatham Chandrasekhar was in favour of my suggestion, Punjabi folk song and sitar recital was scheduled after my Navarasa. This was the order followed in all the programs done later.

How did your signature number Navarasa reach the Russian population?
While I performed Navarasa and Mudras, it was directly telecast on TV in Moscow. Thus, I saw some pictures from Navarasa abhinaya and Mudra abhinaya in the Russian papers.

Did you enjoy your Bolshoi theatre experience?
All members of the cultural group were invited to the renowned Bolshoi theatre to watch the famous Russian Ballet 'Swan Lake.' The scenes were pleasing to the eyes. It captivated me. The stage direction and lights were extremely attractive. The foot work was amazing, the likes of which I had never seen before. After the show was over, the ballet director came to us for our feedback. We were full of praise and said it was out-of-the-world and very captivating. I described to him a pose done by the heroine that I did not quite understand. He asked which part, to which I said, "The pose where the heroine was sad but she had pointed one foot on the ground while the other was fully raised above the head pointing towards the sky. I do not understand how this pose could be used to describe grief (shoka)."

He replied, "The heroine was expressing her grief to her lover through the wind." I said, "In that case, a slight movement in the leg raised above would have conveyed that the feeling of heroine is being transmitted to her lover by the wind. But the leg was stationary. And wind is never stationary! Specially in the Indian dance form the rule is while expressing shoka, the speed of a movement should be highly reduced. I have a difference of opinion only for that pose." He agreed to what I said and shook my hands. I got the self-confidence to say this to him only because of the great epics Meghasandesham and Mayurasandesham.

It was heartening to see that on September 2, the producer himself had this review of mine published in the newspaper 'Soviet Cultural'. So I gather many people must have read it with a positive mind.

How was your sightseeing experience in Moscow?
Some of us from the cultural group went sightseeing around Moscow in underground railways. While getting off the metro, a few Russian co-passengers (young women and men) looked at me carefully. Some of the young women even touched my curly hair. They showed the mudras of lotus, fish and said 'lotos, riba, vodha.' And I replied to them 'dha dha'. They recognised me because they had seen my Navarasa performance on television. In Russian, lotus is called 'lotos,' fish is called 'riba' and for water 'vodha'. And 'dha dha' means 'Yes.' After reaching Russia, I learnt a few words like greeting and taking leave from the interpreter. I tried to use these words while meeting new people.

Which are the different places where you performed?
After the program in Moscow, the group performed in Leningrad, Sochi, Ukraine, Jojia, Iravana, Tashkent, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. At every place, all the group members received a grand reception along with numerous gifts. During the 3 months, we were able to visit all the important places like museums, universities etc in Soviet Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. We all felt that they welcomed us warmly. Every member of the group received a pocket money of 1000 rubles. At that time, it was worth around 1700 Indian rupees. But since ruble could not be brought as cash to India, everyone bought some items.

Out of the 1000 rubles that I got, I bought a stone studded ring worth 500 rubles from Ukraine. With remaining 500, I bought some learning equipments for the kids and makeup items for stage performances. We did not have to spend anything for our stay and living expenses. The members were accommodated in hotels with all amenities and sumptuous meals. On that trip, we travelled by train only from Moscow to Leningrad and Poland. The rest of the places we travelled by special flights. There were 8 interpreters and two officers to accompany us. As soon as the event was over in each place, the artistes would be brought on stage and presented with bouquets and the people were eager to take photos with us. In a nutshell, the 3 months of my stay in USSR was very enjoyable.

What did it feel like to return home to India?
We were a happy lot who returned to Bombay with cameras, clocks and glassware with intricate workmanship. Our joys were short-lived and soon came to an end when customs inspection started. They seized all our gifts and demanded for us to pay heavy customs duty to take it back. Marakatham Chandrasekhar intervened and arranged for the goods to be sent to the customs office in Delhi. Each person's gifts were put in a box with their names on it and handed to the customs officer. I kept a note of the gifts I put in my box. We reached Santa Cruz airport (Bombay) at 7pm and had to stay in front of the customs until 11pm.

After speaking to the customs officers, Marakatham Chandrasekhar and Director K.S. Mallik left in their respective office cars. Vikram Singh instructed the rest of us to stay in Kota House and left. He also said that our flight to Delhi from Bombay was at 12 midnight. The artistes and the Secretary boarded that flight and reached Palam (Delhi) at 1:30am.

What was the attitude of the Cultural Ministry after you landed in India?
When we landed, no one from the Cultural Ministry was at the airport to receive us. When we were leaving for Moscow, we were offered garlands by the officers in that airport. Only the Secretary was still there with us. We arrived at Kota House on Shah Jahan Road on an Air India bus. Not a single room was reserved for us there. Some members, who were residents of Delhi, took a taxi to their houses. People from South India including myself, those from Assam, Manipur, Kolkata and Pune had to stay in the verandah of Kota House until dawn. Till 9 in the morning, we were allowed to stay there. Despite staying there for 2 days, the boxes containing our gifts from Bombay did not reach Delhi. The secretary who came with the group informed us that the boxes had arrived on the third day and that each member has to pay a customs duty of Rs 400 to collect their box. Some of them did accordingly and took their boxes. But, as soon as I came to know about this, I went to Marakatham Chandrasekhar's staff and informed that I would not be able to collect my box by paying Rs 400. I said that I have not received any remuneration for the events I did and have only Rs 10 in my pocket for the period of the last three months. I have participated in a total of 27 programs for the Indian Government and that I should get at least Rs. 2700, at Rs. 100 for each program. So I should not be charged anything as customs duty. He immediately spoke to the then Finance minister Deshmukh on the phone. He agreed to a waiver of customs duty on gift baskets received by artistes who had travelled to Russia.

Accordingly, the others and I went and collected the gift boxes from the Customs Office. When I brought it to the residence and opened my box, most of the glass plates I got from Czechoslovakia were broken. I took the glass pieces away and packed the rest in a special box and the items were taken back to Madras by the Grand Trunk Express from Delhi. The journey up was by flight and down was by second class train. Since I had informed about my arrival to one of my friends C.R. Krishna, he brought some of my other friends, artistes and well wishers to the Madras Central station and welcomed me with a garland. I still remember the then Madras Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, Lalitha-Padmini, Vempati Satyam, Nataraj-Shakuntala were at the station to welcome me.

After the Russian tour, I was invited to speak at the Communist conference to be held at Trichy and Palakkad. I accepted their invite and went to those two places and spoke about some of my experiences in Russia in Malayalam, Tamil and broken English. Thereafter, I was invited to a lot of places to speak, but because I was not a good speaker, I did not accept most of the invites.

What are the books you published?
I had clicked many dance related photos with a good camera which I had received as a gift in Moscow and used those photos in 2 of my books that I released in 1957. I summarized the concepts in the classical dance books Hasthalakshana Deepika, Abhinaya Darpanam and Natyashastra and published a book titled 'Abhinayaprakashika' in Sanskrit and English that can be easily grasped by the common people in July 1957. In October 1957, I published another book on Kathakali in Malayalam called 'Kathakali Natanam' in which I described in detail the Kathakali practise methods, mudras , abhinaya and angika movements. K.M. Munshi and Dr. S.K.Nair wrote the introduction for 'Abhinayaprakashika' and 'Kathaklai Natanam' respectively.

About your performance in New Delhi when Central Sangeet Natak Akademi invited you...
At the invitation of the Kendriya Sangeet Natak Akademi, my repertory group and I participated in the All India Dance seminar held in New Delhi in 1958. Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru hosted a tea party for the artistes who attended the seminar at the Teenmurthi House on the occasion. An incident of that evening is etched indelibly in my mind. Devika Rani and I were having a conversation with her husband, the famous painter Roerich in the garden. While we were talking, Panditji came to us and greeted Roerich and Devika Rani. He only asked me "Kaisa, Guruji?" I politely said, "Ahh, Panditji" and he led us to the place where we drank tea together.

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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