Kalamandalam Gopi has been the favourite of Kathakali’s aficionados

Since 1958, from the beginning of his career, Vadakke Manalath Govindan Nair, popularly known as Kalamandalam Gopi, has been the favourite of the art form’s aficionados.

From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, he was the energiser on Kathakali stage for the young audience and apostle among young artistes. It was at a time when masters such as Vazhengata Kunju Nair, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and Ramankutty Nair dominated the mainstream performance arena of Kathakali. Soon, Kalamandalam Gopi became the evergreen hero of the art.

On completion of his formal lessons from the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1957, under thespians Padmanabhan Nair and Ramankutty Nair, Gopi was appointed as a teacher there by poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, one of the founders of the Kerala Kalamandalam. In 1992, Gopi retired from Kalamandalam as Principal. Today, he is the only living artiste who was appointed directly by Vallathol and is the superstar of the art form. The transformation of Vadakke Manalath Govindan Nair, fondly called Kalamandalam Gopi, is a significant chapter in the history of Kathakali. The Kerala Kalamandalam groomed him; subsequently he scaled creative heights and brought further fame to his alma mater. Excerpts from an interview.

Kalamandalam Gopi has been the favourite of Kathakali’s aficionados

Your first encounter with Kathakali.

When in the third standard, I was sent to learn Ottanthullal. This put an end to my formal schooling. But the training in Ottanthullal stopped as the master left the place. So for about a year I was wandering around doing nothing. I was then sent to train in Kathakali under Thekkinkattil Ravunni Nair, who stayed close by. Soon that too ended and I was back to wandering. The life of ordinary people in a Kerala village in the pre-Independence era was quite different from what it is today. The next year I was admitted at the Kerala Kalamandalam .

How was life as a student at Kalamandalam?

Poet Vallathol personally auditioned the applicants and selected only after a make-up test , but exempted me from it. Kalamandalam was more like a joint family with Vallathol as the patriarch. Training was strict, strenuous and painful . None dared to question any kind of punishment from the asans. When I became a performer I understood the significance of such a disciplined approach. One incident that I can never forget is how on the first day, when I entered the premises I asked for a beedi from a young man passing by enjoying his smoke. He stared at me angrily and walked away. The next morning when I reported for my class, I was embarrassed to know that the man was none other than Kalamandalam Padmanabhan.

About the training process.

The first three years of training under Padmanabhan Nair asan laid the foundation, followed by three years of training under Ramankutty Nair. The next year I was appointed as an instructor. A great turning point at the beginning of my career was the formation of a troupe of minor artistes at the Kalamandalam. It gave the young artistes necessary stage experience. Kathakali with its complex and demanding technique can be disseminated only through regular performances.

Your view on the present status of the art form.

The current atmosphere is more generous and mutually complementing to both performers and rasikas. The young actors and accompanying musicians are talented and dedicated. As far as the viewers are concerned, it’s heartening to see quite a few youngsters in the audience. Not all of them may be aware of the intricacies of the form but the joy of watching is as important.

Does the change in the training system augur well for the art?

I can only speak about Kerala Kalamandalam, which I know well and not about other institutions that teach Kathakali. Though with time changes have crept into the method of training, I strongly feel the disciplined school system, with emphasis on improving language skills, was based on a holistic approach. Kalamandalam today is a deemed university with space for formal education. But the stress should not move away from physical training, which is the core. Enough time should be allotted to practical training, besides learning languages. Being a deemed university now, the decisions on these aspects should come from the UGC and the syllabus restructured in consultation with experienced masters of the art. What one imbibes from the training comes across on the stage, that too never in totality. Hence stage experience hardly compensates for missing ingredients in training. Flexibility, effortlessness in showcasing mudras and abhinaya in tune with the aesthetics, etc., are achieved only through physical training, which cannot be compromised. The Kalamandalam administrators should seriously look into these issues. Also, quality training cannot be ensured with teachers appointed on a temporary basis. For the past two decades, no regular appointments have been made for reasons best known. When I was a student, I was trained by two gurus during the entire course period. So the guru-sishya bond was firm. Every lesson is still fresh in my mind, though the gurus are no more. When I began to teach, due to the increase in the number of students and teachers, a student had to undergo training under minimum three teachers and by the time I retired in 1992, it was raised to eight teachers.

Your favourite role?

I don’t know (laughs)! As you know, mostly I am commissioned to do pacha (pious) characters. Since the age of 21, I have been invited to perform as Nala in the four Nalacharitam plays. Other roles I have played are Karna (Karnasapadam), Rugmangada (Rugmangadacharitam), Arjuna (Kalakeyavadham, Subhadraharanam, Santhanagopalam), Bheema (Kalyanasougandhigam), Dharmaputhrar (Kirmeeravadham) and Roudrabheema (Duryodhanavadham). I have also occasionally performed as Krishna (Kuchelavritham); all pacha types. Padmanabhan Asan used to say that my Keechaka (Keechakavadham) ‘kathi’ (villainous) type was impressive. I am still a student longing for perfection. After each performance, I feel it should have been better.

Your favourite heroine?

The one and only Kottakal Shivaraman. After his demise, it has been Margi Vijayakumar. Vijayakumar is not my disciple; he is like a younger friend. He exudes exemplary feminine grace in his portrayals.

(The writer is the author of Kathakali Dance-Theatre: A Visual Narrative of Sacred Indian Mime)

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 2:52:19 AM |

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