Monday, June 19, 2017

Looking Back, With Wonder And Gratefulness

The legendary Kathakali exponent, Kalamandalam Gopi looks back on his career, as his recent 80th birthday sparked a four-day celebration in Thrissur

First photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Mollywood superstar Mohanlal was stuck shooting for the film 'Velipadinte Pusthakam' in Thiruvananthapuram. Yet, he was keen to attend the public meeting at Thrissur honouring Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Gopi on his 80th birthday in early June.

Through the help of mutual friends, he reached Thrissur by helicopter. “I was touched that Mohanlal took so much of trouble,” says Gopi.

In his speech, Mohanlal said, “I first began interacting with Gopiasan (asan = master) when he acted in the film, 'Vanaprastham' (1999). In the film, he played my father-in-law. Thereafter, we became friends. And whenever I met him, I would call him 'Father-in-law'.”

Gopi, as well as the audience, burst into laughter.

Gopi is regarded as one of the legends of the Kathakali art form. His biggest impact happened when he teamed up with the late Kottakkal Sivaraman (1936-2010), who acted as his heroine. They stunned the audience with their performance in the plays, 'Nalacharitam', 'Karnasapatam' and 'Rugmangada Charitam', among many other works, most of which are based on the Hindu epics, like the Mahabaratha.

It also helped that maestros like Sankaran Embranthiri, Hyderali and Venmani Haridas provided the vocal accompaniment.

Gopi played a crucial role in popularising Kathakali as an art form,” says KK Gopalakrishnan, author of the well-received 'Kathakali Dance-Theatre: A Visual Narrative of Sacred Indian Mime'. “His name became synonymous as the hero of these plays, and his performances have become the sole yardstick for succeeding generations of artists and aficionados.

What helped were his many natural gifts. “Gopi has an expressive face with captivating eyes,” says Gopalakrishnan. “He is blessed with a deep rhythmic sense, and mesmerizing hand gestures. And is capable of sudden innovations during the course of a performance.”  

While most of his contemporaries have passed away, Gopi is still going strong, in his 60th year of public performances. Asked the secret of his longevity, Gopi says, “God has been kind to me. Apart from that, it is the teaching of my gurus, and the ability to get over setbacks.”

Indeed, it has not been an easy journey. It began when Gopi was ten years old, and began learning Kathakali under Thekkinkattil Ravunni Nair at Nagallassery, near Pattambi. But one day, Ravunni hit Gopi with several strokes of the cane. The child was deeply upset. The next morning he boarded a bus and went to Pattambi.

He had heard that the Army was holding a recruitment camp there. When Gopi reached Pattambi he met a Muslim tea-shop owner who asked him where he was going. When Gopi told him, the shop owner told him he was too young to join the Army.

The man provided Gopi a breakfast, refused to take any money, and put him on a bus back home. “I will never forget the kindness of the man,” says Gopi. He returned to the house of Ravunni Nair and reconnected with his destiny. He later joined the Kerala Kalamandalam at Thrissur and trained under eminent gurus Padmanabhan Nair and Ramankutty Nair. 

Very soon, Gopi started giving public recitals. A few years went by. He received a lot of plaudits. But he sensed an unspoken opposition among the other staffers, students and teachers of the Kalamandalam. It disturbed him.

One night, after dinner, he went to the rehearsal area and swallowed 12 sleeping pills. He threw the tablet packets outside the window. His wife Chandrika discovered them. Immediately she informed the other staffers.

Somehow, they managed to open the door, and rushed Gopi to the hospital. In the end, he survived. “It was as if I had received a second life,” says Gopi, a Padma Shri awardee. Thereafter, his career soared once again.

On asked whether he had any more wishes to be fulfilled, Gopi says, “Just one. The moment I can no longer dance I want my life to end.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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