One afternoon in 1951, a 14-year-old dark, lanky boy came with his father to Kerala Kalamandalam, a school for performing arts in Thrissur district in Kerala. There, he ran into veteran Kathakali artistes Ramankutty Nair and Padmanabhan Nair who were between classes, playing cards in a tiny room. “Do you want to join us?” they asked the boy who had come to join the mandalam as a student of Kathakali.
The boy was Kalamandalam Gopi who, along with these veterans, became instrumental in taking Kathakali across the globe. Now 70, Gopi retired as the principal of Kalamandalam 15 years ago, but he is still immersed in the world of Kathakali.
Through his improvisations and expressive style of acting, Gopi has transformed the highly technical theatrical language of Kathakali into pure entertainment. But for him, this art form, with all its technicalities that can’t be grasped by a lay person, would have remained confined to a limited audience, gradually becoming another classical art form of yore. “Gopi is the greatest artiste of our times. I have personally invited him to perform twice at my centre in Delhi and a huge audience was enthralled by his performance,” says Sonal Mansingh, the renowned Odissi exponent and former chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi,
Gopi rose to prominence at a very young age, at a time when veterans such as Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair and Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair were at their peak. What made him emerge as a striking performer and popularise Kathakali even when such stalwarts dominated the scene?
“Besides the rare blend of beauty, ability and training, Gopi’s rise to popularity and prominence was also indicative of a radical shift in sensibility of the Kathakali audience from the 1960s,” says M.V. Narayanan, theatre expert and professor of literature at the Myazaki International University, Japan. “More and more members of the urban middle-class, their tastes shaped by watching other visual forms such as popular drama and film, were becoming Kathakali aficionados, and this led to the introduction of a modern sensibility into the viewer aesthetics of Kathakali—one that lay store in emotive themes, representations of individuality and improvisations in acting.” It is this modern sensibility that Gopi appealed to with his performance.
“I grew to be a Kathakali artiste by an accident,” admits Gopi asan (teacher), as he is popularly called. He was unable to continue studies beyond class 4 because of abject poverty, and took to learning Ottanthullal, a semi-stylized dance-form popular in Kerala. In 1945, he joined a Kathakali school run at a Brahmin’s house near his native place in Palakkad. The school had to close as there was no patronage and the little boy was about to go back to work in the fields as a daily-wage earner. Later, someone told him that Kerala Kalamandalam, the renowned school that had become a “deemed” university, was looking for students. The prospect of living in a hostel and free food immediately excited Gopi.
“I took to Kathakali because I was asked to do so by my parents,” he admits. “I didn’t have any particular interest, except that I had watched a few Kathakali performances as a little boy during temple festivals and was often mesmerized by the elaborate makeup of the artistes.”
Training at Kalamandalam was rigorous—from 4 am till 10 pm, under maestros such as Ramankutty Nair, Padmanabhan Nair and Krishnakutty Warrier. It lasted for seven long years. “It is the dedication of those teachers that has helped me grow to these heights,” says Gopi.
Kathakali has its roots in Krishnaattom (dance) which was developed and popularized by the Zamorin, who ruled Kozhikode in the 17th century. It is based on the famous 12th-century Sanskrit poem Geeta Govinda which celebrates the love of Lord Krishna for Radha. The ruler of Kottarakkara, a fiefdom in south Kerala, gave form to another play, Ramanattom, based on the life of Lord Rama. These masked plays were a precursor to Kathakali. In the 18th century, the ruler of Kottayam in central Kerala gave Kathakali its current name, along with its present form, making innovations in the costumes, stylization and presentation, and basing it on dramatic episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Traditionally, stories based on the epics were composed to be performed over a whole night, but with time they have become more concise, focusing only the dramatic and popular parts that last from two to four hours.
Killimanglam Vasudevan Namboodiripad, the former superintendent of Kerala Kalamandalam, was instrumental in catapulting Gopi into limelight. “In late 1960s when veterans were hogging the show, junior artistes such as Gopi or singer Gangadharan found it difficult to eke out a living. I decided to form a minor troupe involving them. Since they were charging much less than others, this troupe got many invitations to perform,” he says.
Gopi still remembers his performance as Bhima in Paris in the 1980s. Enacting an episode of the Mahabharata, he was to kill Duryodhana. “I was very young then. Bhima was to pull out the intestines of Duryodhana and, to an extent, I overdid it. A pregnant woman in the front row was shocked at the performance and fainted,” he recalls.
Three factors are crucial in the making of any good Kathakali actor—a body and face ideal for the Kathakali costume and make-up, acting and expressive abilities and rigorous training. “What one finds in Gopi is a rare and happy blend of all these,” says M.V. Narayanan. “He is actually the only actor today who can present with equal ease such highly technical and systematized roles like that of Arjun or Bhim or Yudhisthira, as well as the more ‘emotive’ and ‘freewheeling’ roles such as Nala and Karna.”
Expressions come naturally to Gopi, says Killimangalam Namboodiripad, former superintendent of Kalamandalam. “The ease with which he performs, the clarity in his movements and expressions, and the grandeur when he performs on stage are unparalleled,” he adds.
What does Gopi have to say about all this adulation? “I have to communicate with my audience,” he replies modestly. “There are human feelings, passions, desires and pathos in these stories, and I do what I feel I should without getting out of the traditional framework.”
Over the years, he has come to be identified with certain characters, especially Nala in the play Nalacharitam or the union of Nala and Damyanti, or Karna in Karnashapadam where Kunti reveals to him that he is her son, or Arjuna in Santanagopalam where a Brahmin reveals the sad tale of the death of his children. “Those who invite me to perform demand that I play a particular role and this makes me continue to don these roles,” he says.
Fellow dancer, Kottakkal Sivaraman, has played the (female) role of Gopi’s partner on stage for years, be it as Damayanti, or as Mohini out to end Rugmangada’s penance, or as Kunti alongside Karna in emotionally charged scenes. “We are of the same age, share and cherish nearly the same desires and memories,” he says. “And so our chemistry works on the stage. We can understand what is in each other’s mind and respond on the stage.”
Gopi has two sons and neither of them is following in his father’s footsteps. The elder son runs his own small business, while the younger one works in a private sector bank. “I did not go beyond primary education and so concentrated on giving my children education, and they had little time to study the art of Kathakali,” says Gopi. But the innumerable students he taught at the Kalamandalam for over 30 years will continue to keep the glorious tradition of Kathakali alive.
Photographs by Joshi Xavier