Tracing the life of a legend

Documentary Journalist, artist and Kathakali aficionado Meena Narayan talks to Saraswathy Nagarajan about her docu-fiction on Kalamandalam Gopi, which will be screened today

T he epic characters who came to life in the light and shadows of flickering lamps on Kathakali stages ignited in a little girl a passion for Kathakali and its rich traditions. Years flew by and the little girl grew up and set up home in Dubai and Bangalore but she never forgot those evenings when those maestros transported her to a world of myth and legends. For Meena Narayan, that little girl, Kathakali is in her blood. Niece of Kathakali patron M.K.K. Nair and great grand-daughter of K.C. Kesava Pillai, poet laureate of erstwhile Travancore who also wrote the attakatha Prahlada Charitham, Meena found it impossible not to be drawn to the magic of Kathakali.

Celebrating Kathakali and one of its greatest stars – Kalamandalam Gopi – is Meena's 80-minute documentary in English titled Making of a Maestro – a docufiction on the life of Kalamandalam Gopi, which will be screened today at The Leela, Kovalam.

“He is a living legend, whose life needs to be documented for the coming generations. His style of dance is unique and he has taken the mantle from Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, whose life unfortunately has not been documented. Now the artiste is 74 years old and we thought before it's too late we should capture the essential moments in his life and also some of his rare performances for posterity,” says Meena on the eve of the film's premiere in Thrissur.

Rare snippets of the artiste

The documentary features rare, live performances by Kalamandalam Gopi, some of which he no longer performs. Research on this film started a year ago after Meena met Gopi asan at his house. The diligent journalist that she is, Meena began by multiple readings of his autobiography Ormayile Pachakal. Scripted and directed by Meena, the documentary traces how a youngster called V.M. Govindan became the maestro Kalamandalam Gopi. Produced by Meena's husband, K. Narayan Nedungadi, of MNJ Productions, the film throws light on the personal and artistic life of the actor who has redefined the hero in Kathakali. Cinematographer V.K. Subhash captured the narrative of Gopi asan's life while Balabhaskar scored the music for the documentary.

“I wanted Balabhaskar to do the music as this documentary is geared towards the international audience and I wanted to add a touch of symphony to it, which Balabhaskar did very beautifully. But in the Kathakali portions we have stuck to the traditional music and did not alter it,” says Meena.

As for Balabhaskar, he says that he was lucky to get a director who allowed him to innovate and experiment. “Although we have used Kathakali music for the performances, the background score has a contemporary sound that is in sync with the narrative,” says Balabhaskar, who adds that composing the music for the film was an invaluable experience.

Meena plans to take the film to an international audience with versions in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese.

Meena has also given shape to the Bangalore Club for Kathakali & the Arts (BCKA) that stages shows and conducts lecture-demonstrations on Kathakali. “Kathakali is a classical art form that is difficult to understand unless it closely followed. At BCKA, we hold demonstrations of Kathakali and explain mudras, steps and stories to people who are unfamiliar with it. We also edit the plays to make it easily understood. My son, Jaidev, takes an avid interest in the art form and even suggests that we do new plays. This is the only way we can carry this forward,” adds Meena.

An admirer of actors like Margi Vijayan, Ramachandran Unnithan, Kalamandalam Krishnakumar, Kalamandalam Hari Nair and (among youngsters) Arun Warrier, Meena says her film reminds us that unless classical art forms like Kathakali get proper support and patronage, it might fade into oblivion.

Talking about experimentalism and adapting Shakespeare and other dramatists for Kathakali, Meena says: “My uncle M.K.K. Nair adapted many such plays into Kathakali including Dr. Faustus. Sometimes these plays become successful, and sometimes like in the case of Sohrab and Rustam, they fail. I think if we adapt familiar plays properly then they can become popular. We have a lot of Kathakali connoisseurs waiting for new plays…”

Meena is also editor-in-chief and managing partner of Gulf Connoisseur, a luxury lifestyle magazine that she plans to launch in India. The Address on the hotels and the hospitality industry, Spa Aficionado, and Essence, which is on jewellery and watches.

Meena, a self-taught artist, also plans to hold an exhibition of her works called ‘Haveli- Myriad Moods of a Woman,' through the Four Seasons' at The Palace Hotel in Dubai on October 17. “The exhibition will also have musicians depicting the four seasons aurally,” she adds. But Meena, the journalist and artist, says that though she is “fond of each one of them, as I believe each is an extension of the other, film-making fascinates me most.” And yes, another film is in the making.

He is a living legend, whose life needs to be documented ...

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