Chat Kalamandalam Gopi on a life dedicated to Kathakali TAPATI CHOWDURIE

If you saw Kalamandalam Gopi in the role of Nala, in the story of Nala Damayanti, you would know the essence of Shringar Rasa in Indian aesthetics. The veteran Kathakali exponent was in the Capital not long back at the festival of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Fellowship recipients for 2011, to be felicitated as a Fellow or Akademi Ratna. His unforgettable performance as Nala touched viewers with the different nuances of the rasa, portrayed concisely and suggestively. Excerpts from an interview with the stalwart:

How did you get started in dance? Who were your gurus?

As a child, I started with learning Ottanthulal— a solo dance form with lyrics from Kunchan Nambiar. Later my guru along with my parents, Vadakkath Gopala Nair and my mother Manalathu Ammu Amma, decided that I should learn Kathakali. So at the age of 10, I started learning Kathakali under Thekkinkatil Ravunni Nair at Koodallor Mana. Three years later in 1951, I joined Kerala Kalamandalam, because the kalari of Thekkankatil had shut down. My gurus in Kerala Kalamandalam were Padmavibhushan Lalamandalam Ravunni Nair, Kalamandalam Padmanabha Nair and Keechpadam Kumaran Nair.

What made you stay with this career?

I started learning Kathakali at a tender age when I hardly knew my mind. The sheer rigour of it all made me want to run away from it. It was far from being love at first sight. No single factor was responsible for my choice of taking up Kathakali as my profession. The example of my gurus and the learning of the art form, in all its subtle nuances, matured me into it and the door of Kerala Kalamandalam, my alma mater, was wide open for me to now enter it as a tutor. It was all predestined, you may say.

How was life at Kerala Kalamandalam, both as a student and as a teacher?

Life there as a student was never easy. The day started at 4.30 in the morning, with brief breaks and continued till night. We soon got used to it. With Muralidharan and Rajagopalan my colleagues my days were more or less fun filled. With hard disciplined work that one imbibes from Kerala Kalamandalam, one’s work life is always smooth-going. So was it with me, when I joined the institution as a teacher.

What roles do you enjoy most?

I like myself in romantic and dramatic portrayal of “Pachcha” (green makeup ) roles — in which the protagonist is calm, good humoured, heroic and is seen in moods of grace and valour. The characters of Nala and Rukmagadan are good examples of such characters. Of late I have been taking up other character type roles too. The character I play haunts me even after the performance, because I approach it through my heart.

What would you consider your valuable contribution as a Kathakali dancer?

With whatever knowledge I have of the aesthetics of art and the traditional way in which I have imbibed the spirit of enlightenment, I have innovated and contributed to Kathakali in trying to make it more popular. I have blended the stylised Kalluvazhi tradition with the more flexible semi-realistic emotion filled southern style technique.

What is your opinion of Kathakali dance minus the costumes? Kathakali without the elaborate costumes is easily comprehensible and so it is a good idea to initiate in people the love of Kathakali without the costume to start with. When rasikas have understood the finer nuances of Kathakali, then the costume assumes its place of importance. I personally would prefer the traditional approach and would not like to compromise on the finer aspects.

How do you see the future of Kathakali and young aspirants of the art in this fast changing world?

I do not want to comment on posterity. All that I can say is that everything should be left at the altar of luck and destiny.