Art is his religion

Achievement For 30 years, through his electrifying portrayal, veteran dancer C.K. Balagopalan captured Hanuman's attributes with dazzling power.

September 03, 2010 07:23 pm | Updated November 26, 2021 10:29 pm IST - Chennai

C.K. Balagopalan. Photo: N. Sridharan

C.K. Balagopalan. Photo: N. Sridharan

His mother died in Kerala while the young man was performing dance dramas in New Delhi. He could return only for her 13th day rites. Veteran dance artist and guru C.K. Balagopalan recalls emotionally, “The solace came decades later when my guru Rukmini Devi died with her head on my lap. She used to say I was her son in a previous birth.”

Balan's actor father Rasikasiromani Koman Nair, known as the ‘Charlie Chaplin of Malabar,' was famous for his last beggar's act. The cash flow from spectators exceeded his performance fee! A scholarship brought Balan at age 13 to Kalakshetra with V.P. Dhananjayan for classmate, and martinet Chandu Panikker for Kathakali asaan.

“It was heaven. The hostel food was amirtham , and Athai (Rukmini Devi, founder/director) was a goddess!” The boy was so innocent that he thought Kathakali meant storytelling (katha) and playing (kali)!

Life-changing experience

Terrorised by the asaan's thrashings, Balan wanted to run away. Becoming football champion at the Besant Theosophical School saved his sanity. It was a blow to give up school and focus wholly on dancing but ‘Sita Swayamvaram' (1945) became a life-changing experience. Balan was exhilarated by Athai's vision as she choreographed the Valmiki Ramayana. Irascible Panikker predicted, “Even if you just run across the stage, you will win recognition.”

Balan's debut as Lakshmana (to Dhananjayan's Rama) was to realise more than his dreams. Suddenly the pair found themselves drowned in acclaim. Athai warned, “Disregard praise.” But she was the first to commend if her dancers went beyond the merely taught. “ Jamaaichuttayae !” she exclaimed when the boys found innovative ways of making a forest spring to life.

As asset to Kalakshetra

Few artists in India have matched Balagopalan's excellence or versatility. Even before he finished his diploma course and started teaching in his alma mater, Balan became an asset to Kalakshetra's repertory. He made memorable totally different characters in the same story – Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Vasishta. “I didn't think of lead and side roles. Just did what Athai wanted.” (Later, at her bidding, he gave up a lucrative Singapore post to return to Kalakshetra.)

Balan's sparkling alertness and sense of mischief made him the perfect Krishna in productions as varied as ‘Rukmini Kalyanam' and ‘Gita Govindam'. He had the rare and daunting honour of playing Mahavishnu and Vajrasen to his teachers Sarada Hoffman's ‘Andal' and Pushpa Shankar's ‘Shyama'. The Kalakshetra training chiselled his Bharatanatyam, Kathakali layered his abhinaya and his father's genes ensured histrionic skills. He could give shape to a clown (Sakuntalam), a tribal chieftain (Kannappar Kuravanji), and lent sharp focus to negative roles. To play Sakuni, Balan devised a malevolent language of sidelong glances and a zillion ways of throwing the dice, to suggest Kaurava arrogance and Pandava doom.

Above the threshold, Hanuman blesses Balagopalan's modest home and dance school Balanrithyalaya.

“I owe everything to Anjaneya, Athai and Asaan,” he acknowledges gratefully.

To those who have seen the Kalakshetra ‘Ramayana', Balagopalan is synonymous with Anjaneya. Rukmini Devi overruled all objections (“Short, small… how can he play a colossal being?”) to have her way in the casting. “I don't know how Athai saw a giant in me. All I know is that each time I took the vishwarupam (gigantic form), I found a current coursing through my whole being. Breath became potent. I didn't see my fellow artist, I saw Lord Rama. When I conveyed Rama's message to the imprisoned Sita, my frenzy of rage and grief was no drama, but reality.”

For 30 years, Balan prepared to play Hanuman with abstinence and purification rituals. In his electrifying portrayal, the dancer captured the character's animal and divine attributes with superb craft and dazzling power. “Periya Sarada teacher made me grasp both the physical and philosophical aspects. Believe me, I surrendered to Hanuman.”

He is capable of critical self-reflection. “I could not excel the original performer Kunhiraman in playing Viswamitra.” “I owe everything to my wife Leela; she gave me a new life.” Son Pranesh is into hotel management while daughter Prithvija is a television actor and Bharatanatyam artist. A deep joy to the father who regrets that he was not encouraged to be a solo Bharatanatyam artist. “I'd have been internationally known!”

But his greatness comes through when, seated on a low chair, with no aids or artifice, Balagopal launches into abhinaya from ‘Gita Govindam', Tagore's ‘Shyama, Paduka Pattabhishekam… to prove how inscaping artha and bhava elevates the spirit and sparks the sublime within. “When Janardhanan and I embraced each other as the reunited brothers, our eyes were wet, not with our own tears but the tears of Rama and Bharata. See, my hair stands on end even now as I think of their selfless love and devotion!” To Balagopalan art remains sadhana, stimulating the highest thoughts and feelings of human kind.

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