Balagopal — tapasvi who walked the talk

With his abundant creativity, he responded to Rukmini Devi’s aesthetics, breathing life into every role that he played

August 29, 2019 03:34 pm | Updated 03:34 pm IST

C.K. Balagopalan

C.K. Balagopalan

If one of the stage lights blew a fuse, you could see him gently moving into the light of the other bulbs. “You must feel the light on your skin and move into the light,” he would teach…

Prof. C.K. Balagopal — ‘Balagopal sir’ to his students, ‘Balanna’ to his juniors and simply ‘Bala’ or ‘Balan’ to his friends. No matter by what name you call him… he was an artiste. He said: “In this art, there is a lot of hard work. It is a quest for perfection where the body is highly refined and for this there needs to be a very strict discipline… it is a tapas…”

When he passed on a few days ago, on August 24, (a few weeks short of his 80th birthday), he was rehearsing every day for a role he was to play in Rukmini Devi’ s ‘Kumarasambhavam’ to be staged by Kalakshetra later this year. Dancing-fit and agile Balagopal was on a strict diet and exercise regimen apart from working on the nuances of the role every day! A tapasvi who walked the talk.

His lightness of frame, immaculate white dhoti and kurta, sandalwood marking on his forehead, sparkling eyes and skin that almost glowed gave the Balagopal we all knew a halo of classical aesthetic dignity. But, Balagopal the 13-year old from a small village called Cheruvathur in Kerala, who came to Kalakshetra with asan Chandu Panikar in 1953 was in fact a very frivolous young lad, more interested in games and climbing trees than the rigours of classical art! V.P. Dhananjayan who also boarded the same train to Kalakshetra with asan and Balagopal (he and Shanta, remained Balagopal’s truest friends unto the very end) reminisces that “Bala was very playful and not at all serious,” a trait which often got him into trouble with asan. “He was ready to escape from class and ride on donkeys or horses on our campus or jump onto the motorbikes that the Governor’s ADCs would bring to Kalakshetra.”

Balagopal as Hanuman in ‘Choodamani Pradhanam’

Balagopal as Hanuman in ‘Choodamani Pradhanam’

In fact, the free-spirited Balagopal even considered running away. But luckily, for both Institution and art, authoritarian elders and simple economics prevented this adventure. And later asan would say of this pupil whom he considered one of his own sons (along with Dhananjayan and his biological son Janardhanan) that even though he was not good with his lessons, Balagopal excelled with “highest marks” as an artiste!

And when Rukmini Devi started producing her dance dramas Balagopal suddenly found his raison d’etre . He was an actor. A dramatist. And so, while he may have struggled to grasp the grammar and theory of classical arts, the voyeur in him, that free creative spirit, seemed to instantly respond to Rukmini Devi’s aesthetics — her visualisation of characters and the grandeur of her thought. And then he blossomed, all his learning coming to fore as he began to breathe life into her Hanuman, into her Bharata, her Krishna and Kannapar (to mention just a few), his very own nuanced vibrance immortalising every one of these roles in the minds of audiences and of course, helping him walk away with all the applause.

Balagopal as ‘Kapata Sanyasi’

Balagopal as ‘Kapata Sanyasi’

Spontaneity was certainly his middle name. “Balanna was a natural on stage,” remembers Janardhanan, who shared the stage with Balagopal for more than six decades. “Most of his side actions were extempore which would bring a freshness to the role each time.” Inspiring indeed was the veiled lust in Balagopal’s eyes, where in a moment you saw both Ravana and the Sanyasi as much that sudden knocking of the knees as an insignificant king in ‘Sitaswayamvaram’. Strongly etched in audience memory are the moments when as Hanuman he would nimbly jump upon Sugreeva’s shoulders as they arrive on the shores of Lanka or when tears would course down the cheeks of the hunter Thinnappa (Kanappa) as he saw a pair of doves in love and refrained from shooting them — vintage ‘Balagopal moments.’ These were not choreographed, they were some of his many personal artistic touches that enhanced Rukmini Devi’s picturisation! Later actors may copy these moments, and over the years, even ossify them (to ossified applause as well!), but if credits are due, it is to Balagopal’s creativity. Rolling his eyes in a manner that tears would pour down his quivering cheeks, or dragging a leg in the faintest suggestion of a limp, twisting his torso to suggest a dwarf or trying to acquire a snigger on his face — Balagopal could be seen pacing up and down during rehearsals like a man possessed, alone in his world, trying out thought after artistic thought.

Celluloid dreams

“Whatever he thought, his body would immediately speak,” says Dhananjayan, “He had a very mobile face and though he had a small body it spoke volumes.” And Balagopal wanted to become a film actor. “That was my dream,” he once said, adding “I even went for an audition…but they said I was too short!” This however didn’t prevent Balagopal from enacting many a scene from Sivaji Ganesan films during rehearsal breaks in Kalakshetra – the dramatic gait, emotionally charged dialogue, held-back tears et al – to Krishnaveni (Lakshmanan)’s spontaneous eye-lid fluttering Saroja Devi! As for his being short, Rukmini Devi too was asked why she had chosen such a short dancer for the role of Hanuman when the character was known as someone of majestic form. Her simple reply was, “Majesty is an internal state.” Adding, “I have understood Balagopal and I know he can definitely portray (the role).” The rest, as they say, is history!

Janardhanan believes that to be a good actor you don’t need great knowledge, you need talent and a keen observation. “Balanna had both these in abundance.” And no surprise either, as Balagopal’s father, P. Koman Nair was an ace comedy actor and known in Kerala as Malabar Charlie Chaplin. Another colleague and long-time friend, Ambika Buch adds that “For Balan, acting was serious business.”

While his fasting and meditation before essaying the role of Hanuman are a part of Kalakshetra lore, Ambika remembers the time when he did the wily Shakuni in ‘Panchali Sapatham.’ “He spent more than a month watching various portrayals of Shakuni. And finally, after trying out many things he arrived at what he wanted to do!” And, for the record, Balagopal trimmed the beard (false, of course) differently for every staging of the play, just the same way he obsessively practised throwing the dice — eventually never repeating a move on stage!

But to him art wasn’t just the joy of being on stage. He was a true connoisseur, who would enthusiastically applaud artistic creativity, no matter who the artiste and he was never known to indulge in false praise.

And, as a part of Kalakshetra’s Governing Board, Kalakshetra’s Director Revathy Ramachandran says, “Balagopal Sir was deeply concerned about the welfare of teachers and artistes and extremely supportive of all the initiatives of the Foundation.” She believes that in his passing, Kalakshetra and the entire dance fraternity has lost a great artiset, teacher, rasika, guide and mentor.

The writer

grew up in Kalakshetra with all the wonderful artistes mentioned in this article and many others of this fold who she believes have strengthened her journey

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