His traditional welcome with folded hands and a warm smile is an invitation to begin talking. Kalamandalam Gopi (Vadakke Manalath Govindan Nair) is 75 and as eager as ever about his art. He performed at Kalakshetra in the city on Friday. During our conversation, the unassuming man, sans make up and exotic costumes, was candid about his journey in Kathakali, a traditional folk dance-drama form. Mr. Gopi, who learnt from the masters, developed his own style to attract laymen.
He does not see himself as a physically attractive person but his performance more than makes up for it, he says. But there have been days when he was despondent. As a child, when the rigours of Kathakali proved too demanding, he contemplated drowning. “Having tried thrice, and survived, I realised my lifespan was like that of a python’s,” he says.
At Kalakshetra this weekend, he will perform Nala Charitham, a story from the Mahabharatha. “I love and respect Nalan,” he says. Though he has taken the art form to a new level and played a variety of characters — like Keechaka, Bali and Duryodhana, — Shakuni, he says, is not for him. “I am a sathvik artiste who dons pachcha make-up. I don’t do anti-hero roles,” he says. Last week he joined the Kalamandalam Deemed University for Arts and Culture in Kerala to teach the nuances of performing Nala Charitham to postgraduate students there.
Is an M.A. in classical arts enough to ensure a decent performance from a dancer? “Training is imparted by those who were tutored in the gurukul style. I, too, learnt under the guru parampara and am passing on my experiences to youngsters. I believe a student with calibre should learn as much of the art form as he can,” Mr. Gopi says. While training has been modernised, Kathakali has the unique distinction of not admitting women. “Until they get married, women can perform as well as men but the art form is demanding. The costumes are heavy and women cannot travel at the cost of their families. Besides, even until their 80s, men can essay roles but women cannot do that,” Mr. Gopi says.
Kathakali has continued to patronise mythology. Why not experiment with contemporary stories? Would he consider using it as a platform to spread social messages? “I am an actor first. If there is a good script, I will take up the role, whether it is of Gandhi or Nehru,” he says. There have been experiments with stories outside the epics but they have not been as popular as the narration of the puranas.
A story should have a good narrative and the script should be conducive to performance, he says. “I can only perform what the people wish to see. Nala Charitham is special because it is full of scope for narrative, music and dance,” he says.
In fact, he performs Nala Charitham in four parts now. His performances have been recorded and uploaded on the YouTube website.
Renowned filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan has made a documentary on the artiste and the 10-minute video is a tribute to the exponent’s mastery. Mr. Gopi does not consider retirement.
“I would die a happy man today. I have adoring fans around me. But I cannot imagine living a life of retirement. Until my last breath I will continue to perform on stage,” he says. He obliges the photographer who requests a performance he is famous for. In a span of five minutes, the master story-teller executes the navarasas , leaving his small audience spellbound.