Kalamandalam Gopi, Kathakali’s superstar, speaks about his evolution as an artiste and advocates the need for a sustained effort to keep interest in this theatre form alive

Art, sport, cinema, music… hinge heavily on icons. Kathakali has Kalamandalam Gopi. He is the influential shadow and presence; one who has pushed himself to confines of limits beyond training schools and manuals. His impact as an actor is far deeper and greater than anyone before him (with the exception of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair) and after him. He is the centre around which om Kathakali now revolves.

Rigorous training under uncompromising masters helped Gopi gain a firm foothold. He went on to work on what he studied, scrutinising, adapting, and eliminating the intricate techniques. He evolved a style that is was his own.

In his long and fruitful career Gopi has been able to create a space and a huge fan following for himself. It won’t be wrong to say that today people, irrespective of age and gender, go to watch Kathakali only because of Gopi. And it is usual to see people leave venues the moment Gopi finishes his role. “I can’t answer why. I have not tried to find out. And even if I did I don’t think it matters. Yes, I know this happens but then I don’t tell people to come or to go. The truth is that I have created enemies because of this. Though no one tells me directly, I do sense this feeling. But I’m not bothered. I go on with my job trying to do it as best as I can,” says the ‘superstar’ of Kathakali.

Need for total commitment

Kathakali training has become intensive today. Theory, exams and degrees are part of a structured curriculum. How much does all this help in the making of an actor? “Training is important, learning theory is also necessary. But these alone will not work on stage. What is needed is total commitment. One should be able to think and decide on how to enhance his art. There should be that constant search for perfection. When this happens the actor evolves and Kathakali is enhanced. Blessings of the guru, destiny, and luck are other determining factors.”

Gopi feels the need to educate the artistes on the Puranas, a subject that has been given the short shrift by Kathakali institutions. “I grew up listening to stories from the Puranas narrated by my grandmother after the mandatory evening prayers were over. I’m sure this must have been the case with many of my generation. This is lost today. Kathakali has its foundations in these stories, so it becomes all the more important. When I was teaching at Kalamandalam it became clear to me that students would not learn this by themselves. So I incorporated it along with the sahitya classes in the afternoon. I thought it would instil interest and inspire them to read more. I was naïve to think so. It was soon discontinued following opposition from the teachers, after hardly a year.”

Talking of training Gopi insists that the audience also needs to be trained. There is certainly an increase in the number of people watching or following Kathakali as compared to the past. But Gopi feels educated audiences are fewer. “The basic difference I have seen is that in the past a vast majority of those who watched Kathakali knew its intricacies and the Puranas. They either grew up watching gurus teach, understanding the art right from the cholliyattam, deciphering the mudras. Or they were those who learned Kathakali. So even a slight difference on stage was spotted and commented upon.”

To create a knowledgeable audience, Gopi feels, efforts should begin early. “I think the government has a definite role here. It must be made part of school curriculum, maybe from the fifth standard onwards at least. After all Kathakali is synonymous with Kerala. There is so much more to Kathakali than the costumes and the music. One needs to understand the grammar, the techniques, like the angiya aspects for a proper appreciation. Only systematic training can help.”

An educated audience is needed for the survival of any art. And for this a long-term programme is essential. “Any one individual, or a few teachers, or Kalamandalam alone cannot do much. If it becomes part of the curriculum it will open opportunities for young artistes now engaged in this pursuit.”

Changes in Kathakali

Gopi has been witness to a plethora of changes in Kathakali. And at every turn the master has adapted himself quite easily. But he strongly disapproves of the changes in Kathakali Sangeetham. “Music in Kathakali has its original structure. Somewhere down the line Carnatic ragas were introduced. Every generation attempted to improvise on the structure. And what we have today is not Kathakali Sangeetham, which must sync with the actor on stage. Unfortunately we find it sometimes turns into a solo aalapana. Of course, there are still some who stick to the traditional style. Remember, an actor or a musician alone cannot put up a successful performance. It calls for a coordinated effort. There should be perfect understanding like the famous Ramankutty Nair-Krishnankutty Poduval-Appukutty Poduval-Nambeesan combination. When these childhood friends got together it was magic on stage.”

Though Gopi is now synonymous with his ‘paccha veshams’ or those of virtuous, noble characters there was a time when his female roles were a huge draw. “I think I did the female roles quite well. In fact, for the Silver Jubilee celebrations at Kalamandalam the play chosen was ‘Thilottamma’ and I played the lead role along with greats like Kunju Nair Asan, Padmanabhan Asan and Kumaran Asan before a huge audience that included the then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. I gave up female roles when I gained in height and cheeks hollowed in.”

Performing with the greats

And the turning point in his career? “That was performing along with greats like Krishnan Nair Asan, Kunju Nair Asan, Ramanakutty Asan for many years. They used to recommend me for roles like Pushkaran, Arjunan, or Bheeman, while they essayed the main roles. This helped me learn a lot. I was being recognised in the company of the masters. Critics and connoisseurs even said that on stage I resembled Krishnan Nair Asan. This was the biggest compliment I have received, for as a youngster I had spent long hours staring at this great actor. You could not take your eyes off that actor. I have got a lot of love, affection and support from the masters, co-actors, musicians, audiences and organisers all through. I hope and I think I have not disappointed them,” Gopi signs off.


Born Vadakke Manalath Govindan in 1937 at Kothachira, Palakkad.

Gave up formal education and first began learning Ottamthullal.

He took up Kathakali under the tutelage of Thekkinkattil Ravunni Nair at Koodalloor Mana.

When the ‘kalari’ or school at Koodalloor Mana was wound up, Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambeesan, the doyen of music, took the young Gopi to Kerala Kalamandalam.

At Kalamandalam, under Ramankutty Nair and Padmanabhan Nair, Gopi perfected the intricacies of Kathakali.

Gopi was awarded the Padmashri in 2009.

His autobiography is titled Ormayile Pachakal.


Pick of his Veshams

Nalan: Nala Charitham

Pushkaran: Nala Charitham

Arjunan: Santhana Gopalam

Karnan: Karnasapatham

Bheeman: Kalyana Sougandikam/Bakavadhom

Dharmaputran: Kirmeeravadhom

Balabhadran: Subhadraharanam.

Roudra Bheeman: Duryodanavadham

Kachan: Kacha Devayani

Bahukan: Nala Charitham

On Celluloid

Gopi acted in films such as Vanaprastham, Shantham, Loudspeaker and Attakatha.

Two award-winning documentaries ‘Kalamandalam Gopi’ (Adoor Gopalakrishnan) and ‘Making of a Maestro’ (Meena Narayanan) have been made on this ‘superstar’ of Kathakal