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Dancer with a royal heart

Mohiniattam dancer Gopika Varma, married into the royal family of Travancore, believes `abhinaya' to be paramount in a recital. She runs a dance school in Chennai and is also a humanist at heart running a home for the handicapped and a textile unit for their useful employment.

HUMBLE DISPOSITION: Dance is an integral part of Gopika Varma's life.

SHE IS a Raja Ravi Varma painting in live minus the touches. In her traditional Kerala attire, Gopika Varma, a Mohiniattam dancer of repute and wife of the scion of Travancore royalty - Prince Pooruruttathi Thirunal Marthanda Varma, looks like the legendary epic heroine with an affable, humble disposition which is a rarity these days especially from one of her stature. Deliberately avoiding dropping royal names linked to her through marriage, Gopika introduces herself through her dance which is an integral part of her more than her lifestyle. Her simplicity is striking as she expresses candid opinions on art, particularly Mohiniattam, culture and classicism.

Admitting that Mohiniattam has few takers except perhaps at its birth place, Gopika feels that of late, the dance form is gaining popularity at least in southern India for its graceful movements and its unique costume more so with the opening up of Kerala tourism in a big way. "The youngsters who have a penchant to learn classical dance are growing by the day unlike a few years ago when there was an absolute lull. And of late I find students also expressing an eagerness to learn Mohiniattam,'' which means that this dance is learnt as a secondary to some other major dance forms. "Actually I personally feel it is best learnt after a solid training in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali or Kathak as Mohiniattam is a highly evolved dance form where the bhava and abhinaya play a pivotal role, where there is no such thing as jatis (metrical rhythmic footwork). It requires an exclusive sense of involvement and exceptional tala pace as the dance is to be done in a calculated slow and steady motion and there is always this temptation to quicken. It calls for contained, conscious and restrained pace setting if the dancer is to maintain perfection in laya, tala and katha. The best age to learn Mohiniattam is between 25-40 years when a girl experiences the varied and vivid emotions (rasas) of life as a lover, a wife, a mother, a woman fulfilled. You cannot expect a teenager to show the bhava of motherly love or a woman scorned in her face as she has no experience of such emotions going by her tender age,'' she explains.

What if a student is extremely talented in facial expression? "She may be gifted with getting the right expression no sooner it is taught by the guru but even then it will have to be a put on act which may mar the entire thematic content as the heart will not be able to visualise the experience and relive it on stage through the countenance,'' Gopika is firm in her faith that abhinaya is the soul of Mohiniattam.

The fact that many seasoned dancers are not successful with Mohiniattam finds a defendant in Gopika. She feels that the slow pace acts as a deterrent to all those used to the first to third and fourth cyclic beats. This apart, acquiring the knack of story-telling through powerful emotional expression without bordering on the garish and the sensational is taxing. "The teaching and learning process is itself an exerting task as the eyes and face plus gestures should articulate a whole theme and do it convincingly,'' she says. There are no external trimmings like an elaborate costume or gimmicks that act as props to the dancer. "Except for the off-white (or white) with the typical Kerala zari border dress which makes a dancer look rotund and the traditional ornaments we have no recourse to anything that can carry us across trying abhinaya. We have to bank entirely on our eye language, mobile facial expressions and hand gestures throughout the three-hour recital with sway and swinging movements/footwork. I count myself fortunate if my performance leaves a lasting impression of a beautiful emotion conveyed in the most artistic terms through my abhinaya. My strength is my orchestra with whom I share a mutual understanding and respect,'' she says simply.

The yet to be fully exploited Mohiniattam was originally called Th(D)evar-adi-achi (daasi at God's feet) and was a temple dance abolished by the Dutch during the latter's regime in Kerala. It was Maharaja Swati Tirunal who breathed life into this almost dead art form by bringing the court dancers of Thanjavur to Kerala and penning padams which formed the themes of the revived Mohiniattam. "What we have today is the modern Mohinattam which has elements of Bharatanatyam in it being practiced originally by the Thanjavur dancers,'' says Gopika. The dominant strain running through most of Swati Tirunal padams is shringara, and the God Anantha Padmanabha Swamy being the presiding deity of Tirunal's compositions, the stories are instances from Lord Krishna's life and teachings.

Settled in Chennai, Gopika Varma runs her school Daasya with her 15 pupils. She decided to settle in Chennai as she feels it is the nerve centre for classical performing arts. "Chennai has dignified sabhas, discerning critics and devoted audience and above all healthy competition which is a must for any artiste if she wants to grow,'' she states. Gopika is not only a professional dancer, she is a humanist at heart running a home for the handicapped and a textile unit for their useful employment. That is indeed a royal heart!


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