Saturday, August 01, 2009

Back from the brink


A suicide attempt was the major turning point in Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Gopi’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Mundur, near Thirissur, Kathakali legend Kalamandalam Gopi welcomes me warmly to his home, ‘Guru Kripa’. He is wearing a maroon shirt and white mundu.

We settle down on a sofa and soon the interview begins. About twenty minutes into the conversation I tell him I am unable to follow what he has just said. Irritated, Gopiyasan abruptly says, “There is nothing more I have to say. I have a sore throat and feel tired.”

It is at this delicate moment that I quickly mention the name of my friend, Suresh (name changed), a passionate Kathakali fan, who has known Gopiyasan from his childhood.

A few weeks ago, keen to introduce a neophyte like me to the power and magic of kathakali, Suresh sends me a wake-up SMS at 4.45 a.m. There is a Gopiyasan dance being telecast at 5 a.m. And so, with sleep-laden eyes and a stiff body, I switch on the television.

For the next one hour Suresh is on the mobile phone explaining every nuance, mudra, gesture and facial expression. Thanks to this class I am able to appreciate Gopiyasan’s genius.

When Gopiyasan hears this anecdote, he bursts out laughing. His equilibrium restored, the interview resumes once again. He talks with an infectious enthusiasm and joy, and poses for photographs, with his wide, dazzling smile. And so, it is with a grateful shake of his hand that I take his leave and return.

At Kochi I board an Aluva-bound bus to reach the office. However, later, when I open my bag I notice, with a deep sense of shock, that the dictaphone and the cassette, which contains the interview, has been stolen.

Think about it: the words of a man who has reached the pinnacle of his art is stolen by a man of low character and crooked motives. The worst of human nature has clawed at the best.

As for me I am left staring at emptiness. Nevertheless, I feel the brain had also recorded the conversation. The aim now is to recover what is there…

Gopiyasan's story

When Gopiyasan was ten years old he began learning Kathakali under Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair at Nagallassery, near Pattambi. From the very beginning he made a mark.

But one day, things went wrong. Ramunni Nair hit Gopi with several strokes of the cane. The child was deeply upset. The next morning he boarded a bus and instead of heading for his home, at Kothachira village, he went to Pattambi.

He had heard that the Army was holding a recruitment camp there. When Gopi reached Pattambi he saw that he had to cross a river by using a ferry. But he only had three-fourths of an anna, which was not enough.

As he stood irresolutely, a Muslim tea-shop owner saw him and asked what the problem was. “I said I did not have the money to travel on the ferry,” says Gopiyasan, who also told him the reason he wanted to go across. The shop owner told Gopi he was too young to join the Army.

The man gave Gopi a breakfast of puttu and kadala and a cup of tea, refused to take any money, and put him on the bus back home. “I will never forget the kindness of the man,” he says. Gopi returned to the house of Ramunni Nair and reconnected with his destiny.

Very soon, Gopiyasan started giving public recitals and received plaudits. In 1958, he was inducted into the Kerala Kalamandalam as a teacher.

One day, along with his gurus, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Kalamanadalam Padmanabhan Nair, Gopiyasan went to Ernakulam to meet the founder of the Kalamandalam, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon who was sick.

“In fact he was dying,” says Gopi. “And this great poet had only one thought in his mind: the Kalamandalam.” Vallathol said that he depended on them to carry the reputation of Kalamanadalam forward. “Somehow, I took this plea deep into my heart and for the next 34 years I served the institution with the utmost sincerity,” he says.

The next turning point came when as a staffer Gopiyasan received numerous invitations to do solo recitals. It sparked immense jealousy among the other staffers, students and teachers. Gopiyasan was wracked by anxiety and despair at this opposition.

One night, after dinner, he suddenly told his wife, Chandrika, that instead of sleeping in the bedroom, he would do so in the rehearsal area.

Once inside, he locked the door and swallowed 12 sleeping pills. He threw the tablet packets outside the window. An anxious Chandrika discovered them. Immediately she informed Padmanabhan Nair and the other residents.

When Padmanabhan called out from the window to open the door, Gopiyasan could not disobey. He managed to open it, before he collapsed to the floor. For the next three days he was unconscious, but thanks to timely medical treatment he survived. “It was as if I had received a second life,” says Gopiyasan. Thereafter, his career soared.

But at this time he also developed the habit of drinking which he would do non-stop for 40 years. He took his last sip in 2002.

“It never affected my performances,” says the Padma Shri awardee, whose dream now is to win a fellowship from the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Asked about the future the 72-year-old says, “The moment I can no longer dance I want my life to end.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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