Maestro Guru Gopalakrishnan, who passed away on September 5, was an ambassador of Kerala Natanam.
Guru Gopalakrishnan is no more! His desire was to either pass away on stage, like his guru the great Gopinath, or in sleep. He did pass away peacefully, in his sleep, in Chennai, on Teacher’s Day, September 5, 2012.
Born on April 9, 1926, in Kodungallur, this scion of Nanthialath and Changaradi tharavadu (households) was destined to take to dance. His parents, Nanthialath Madhava Menon and Changaradi Ammalu Amma, let him pursue his passion, which was sparked by seeing T.R.Sundaram’s film Balan in 1938.
He desired to learn Kathakali from the masters but chance brought him to Chennai (then Madras) to be at the Gemini Studios and come in contact with the legendary Guru Gopinath, then based in Madras. In 1946, he joined the Natana Niketan dance school.
Madras was then a very happening place for dance and films and fortunes and fame were being made.
Guru Gopinath was choreographing and dancing for many films, thus Gopalakrishnan got a firm foothold in the dance and film world. He was promoted to lead dancer in Guru Gopinath’s troupe.
The stay in Madras made Guru Gopalakrishnan aware of several aspects of dance direction, films, sets and all related arts and crafts.
This he put to good use in his first work, the ‘drum dance’ sequence in Chandralekha. Although many dancers and choreographers talk of this film and sequence and some also take credit, Guru Gopalakrishnan has documentary proof of his participation.
This movie is a classic and the ‘drum dance’ sequence took six months to shoot and the film itself cost Rs. 30 lakh then! A princely sum when a full meal thali those days cost just 60 paise! Gemini Studios, where he was employed as a full-time dancer, was the first Tamil studio to try and distribute the film on a pan-Indian basis. Even my mother took me to see this classic in the late sixties when it was still running! S.S.Vasan had done the direction, Papanasam Sivan wrote the lyrics and the music was by Saluri Rajeshwar Rao.
That was the golden era of dance in Tamil films. Guru Gopalakrishnan became a popular and sought-after dancing star and was part of many Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and even Sinhalese films.
In between, for a brief period in 1948, he proceeded to Kottakal, with full blessings of Guru Gopinath, to learn Kathakali extensively at the P.S.V. Natyasangham and here he came under the guidance of Guru Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, under whom he completed his rangapravesam.
In 1953, he was chosen as a member of a prestigious cultural delegation to China where he had the opportunity to meet Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai. Ustad Vilayat Khan and Hirabai Barodekar were other members of the delegation.
Upon their return, they performed for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi and Guru Gopinath was Krishna and Gopalakrishnan, Arjuna, in the ballet ‘Geethopadesam’.
Neelakkuyil, the realistic Malayalam film made in 1954, which won the National award for the best Malayalam film, had dances choreographed by Gopalakrishnan. Later he was part of films such as Sitaramakalyanam, Jeevithanouka, Amma Doctor, Ammaye Kaanaan, Ninamaninja kaalppaadukal, Mudiyanaaya Puthran, Pareeksha and Tharavattamma.
In 1956 he established his own troupe, Bharathiya Ballet Troupe with M.B. Sreenivasan as his music director. Those days it was a trend to have large dance groups that also travelled all over. Among the orchestra members was R.K. Shekhar, harmonium player, father of Dileep, whom we now know as A.R. Rahman.
In 1963, he married Kusum. She was a student of Kalamandalam and together they continued their activities with their troupe and films, while also conducting classes in Madras. They had staged a record number of performances for 100 days in 1968 at the Navaratna Theatres (Sapphire group).
The couple has a son, Vinod, and a daughter, Apsara.
Once they decided to travel less and settle down, an opportunity came to teach dance at the New Era School in Panchgani, which they did for 22 years.
They created a unique method, ‘Drishyakatha’ narrative, a blend of Kerala Natanam, free dance style and folk forms, which children could absorb easily. As dance educators their roles cannot be underestimated.
In 1994 they returned to Kerala but chose to settle in Chennai. No national award has come their way because they worked quietly.
Their recent book Kerala Natanam is an authentic and authoritative source on the history and heritage of the form and also showcases personages.