By founding the Kerala-style ballet, Kalamandalam Gangadharan fuelled a leading socio-political movement

As a young boy, he bunked classes at primary school and instead teamed up with friends and enacted children’s version of Kathakali. A few years later, the passion took the teenager from Kodungallur to near Shoranur, to learn the classical art at a fledgling institute in the 1940s. That was how Vadakkedath Kanjiraparambil Gangadharan enrolled himself at Kalamandalam, defying the advice of his aristocratic parents.

While his batchmate Ramankutty Nair went on to become a purist’s celebrity, Gangadharan strayed from the orthodox Kalluvazhi style they were trained in, under the uncompromising Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon. The result was the introduction of a theatre genre that gained its own place in Kerala’s 20th century cultural history. And Kalamandalam Gangadharan became the pioneer of what came to be called ballet across the length and breadth of the State. As its characters in realistic costumes essayed stories by blending light dance with often dense drama, the simple narrative refreshed the aesthetics of a vast population.

Today, 15 years after Gangadharan’s death, his art form has lost much of its appeal in a milieu that is vastly different from the Kerala of the 1950s and 60s. That had been the time when Communism had spun much thicker wefts into the State’s cultural fabric.

It was that egalitarian spirit that led the dancer to wed KPAC Sudharma. The theatre artiste hailed from a contrasting socio-economic background and her lead role in epoch-defining play Ningalenne Communistakki won her a huge following among the masses.

The wedding in 1957, with the blessings of the (undivided) Communist Party of India, had actor Sankaradi as the best man. It meant Gangadharan was to settle in Kollam, the hometown of Sudharma, who was also a classical vocalist and veena player. It also turned out to be the year the dancer founded the Indian Dance Academy. Gangadharan already had his tryst with the Kollam from the early 1950s as one of Kerala’s founding members of the IPTA (the pro-Left Indian People’s Theatre Association).

Gangadharan had abandoned Kathakali after his course in Kalamandalam because he had begun to follow a changed line of thought. “Any art should have a theme or moral that would be of use to the common people,” he was quoted as saying in an interview published in 1990. “The dance should inspire them to try it out themselves; else the form won’t last long.”

Notwithstanding his migration from a circle of friends practising feudal-era arts to that of a revolution-seeking league, Gangadharan retained personal ties with his past.

The couple’s eldest daughter, Chitra Gangadharan, recalls her childhood in their house in suburban Kadappakada where they had visitors from divergent streams of the arts. “We had progressive theatre activist-writers such as Thoppil Bhasi, O.N.V. Kurup, P. Bhaskaran, Kakkanadan and Kambisseri Karunakaran. There were also father’s Kalamandalam contemporaries like Ramankutty Nair, Krishnankutty Poduval, Appukutty Poduval…”

Chitra, who used to dance and now teaches in a north Kerala college, remembers Gangadharan’s performance in his masterpiece Premashilpi. It was a 45-minute solo performance based on Pygmalion, the Greek mythological sculptor who falls in love with his own work of art. “As a child, I would watch in awe as my father would, at one point, stir his body like a ripple. It would gain vibrancy to look like massive waves; then recede before he’d freeze to stillness,” she says.

Chitra’s sister Lekha Sasikumar recounts that her parents had happily permitted her to realise her dream of learning Bharatanatyam. “Between them, my parents shared a strong bond,” she says. Sudharma’s death in early 1995 weakened Gangadharan’s health, she adds.

In an uncanny coincidence, the dancer died when his Academy was staging its swan song — only hours after Gangadharan had announced dissolution of the institution.

A recipient of honours such as the Union Ministry of Culture’s fellowship and the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award, Gangadharan, whose famous disciples included actors KPAC Lalitha, Perunna Leelamani and Vijaya Lakshmi, never chased titles.

“He seldom treasured them either,” says his son, G. Santhosh. “Once from our backyard, we retrieved a medal he got after a Berlin show in 1973. I happened to dig it out in the early 1990s.”

Today, nuggets about Gangadharan and his life lie beneath layers of public memory.

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