Kalamandalam Gopi: Tribute to Timelessness


Kalamandalam Gopi: Tribute to Timelessness

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

Gopiyasan as Arjunan in Subhradraharanam

Contemporary Kathakali’s patriarch turns 84 tomorrow.Shatabhishekam, as the occasion is known, falls on May 23, 2021.A piece I wrote on the master 12 years ago merits no major change in content even today. Unsurprising, given the permanence of the master’s grace.

Years ago — in 1987 to be precise — Kalamandalam Gopi was portraying a romantic scene. All decked up, the Kathakali maestro was presenting the gestural version of one beautiful object he has shown innumerable times in the form of a slow-paced mudra: lotus. The visual charm of that minute-long mime was so engrossing for the audience at a central Kerala temple that one among them got up and walked on to the two-foot-high wooden dais. There, as Gopi was holding his palms together in the shape of that showy flower, our man in a trance-like state dropped a coin into the master’s hands. As if an offering to God.

A few seconds later, the mudra was over and Gopi’s hands parted rhythmically. The clank of the falling coin sank in the background percussion, and the dancer coolly continued his performance. The inopportune dakshina left no disgust in his face; the emotion still was unflaggingly shringara.

Twenty-two years later, the master won a distinguished national award by the name of the same mudra: Padma anyway means lotus. He was 71 then. Soon after the good news from Delhi broke, Gopi was doing what he had been for all these six decades: performing Kathakali. Again, in central Kerala — coincidentally, not far from his sleepy, but culturally rich, native place.

The metamorphosis

Like many world-class artistes, Gopi’s transformation has been an amazing tale — as from a dusky kid in his verdant semi-hilly Kothachira village off Pattambi to gaining mastery in a sophisticated dance-theatre. As a chirpy pre-teenager, he dabbled in Ottan Thullal, but the folksy mono dance was too modest to accommodate his genius. Soon, after a year’s Kathakali-learning stint in the neighbourhood Nareri Mansion, he appeared the famous Kalamandalam. It needed only a split-second look at the teenager’s chiselled facial features for the performing arts centre’s founder, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, to induct Gopi as a student. There, the pupil’s artistic effervescence was evident like the gurgling Bharatapuzha that flowed by the institution. However, given his innate potential to emote, Gopi soon began to exhibit his eclecticism.

Kalamandalam Gopi as King Nala on the wedding night:

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His super-senior Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the over-arching 20th- century artiste who transcended region-specific aesthetics in Kerala, inspired him to explore the power of the movements of eyes and cheeks in a theatre that is also Kathakali. By his midtwenties, Kalamandalam Gopi had arrived on the scene.

Steps in ascension

Gopi’s salad days were bohemian. He was festively unpredictable. The gravitas he would lend to King Nala — arguably his masterpiece — in the first scene might slip into near-tomfoolery past midnight once Gopi returned to perform after a break. His love for liquor was a matter of anguish for Kathakali buffs — ironically, they poured the soda for him. The tall man remained lanky during much of his middle age; you often heard news that Gopi performed divinely at one place and was hooted out at another.

Gopiyasan off the stage

Even so, organisers knew Gopi had to be there to ensure a crowd. In the best of moods, he’d be cheerful — talking fluently in the greenroom with a nasal rasp in his voice and all of a sudden breaking into loud guffaws that betrayed his rustic innocence. Sense of humour has rather eluded him, but a boyish charm in his conversations has always won Gopi a legion of friends and admirers — notably females — in his homeland and abroad.

Of late, with all soda and no alcohol, the master has put on weight. His cheeks have turned fleshy and his very visage between the paper-cuts has broadened gracefully. In short, the Gopi on stage has grown handsomer with age. Often, he is choosy about roles — even finicky about his accompanists.

Crowning glory

Gopiyasan as Nala

At the age of 84, his movements have acquired a unique mellow. The class remains unchanged, though the Covid-19 epidemic has largely locked down the world of Kathakali for 15 months now.

Till then, Gopi’s original bubbly nature have continued to find real-time reflections on the stage when he enacts melodramatic roles like Nala, Rugmangada or Karna, yet a regimented tutelage he received long ago would dictate their border. That’s why his Bahuka, even during a streak of unfettered talk with his separated wife’s companion, Keshini, would essay his just-over chariot ride with elegant economy of space. And if one is keen to watch how rigid grammar doesn’t become a burden for the actor and killjoy for the audience, Gopi’s protagonists like Bhima and Arjuna in the weighty Kottayam plays could be the best examples.

His give-and-take approach to the arts in general has enriched Kathakali’s aesthetics.

Kalamandalam Gopi at a demonstration:

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For instance, the postures Gopi strikes while depicting the hoods of snakes around Lord Shiva have a touch of Bharatanatyam — or even the Nataraja idol itself. On the other end of the prism, the way his Nala would romance with Damayanti cannot but remind the average Malayali of Prem Nasir, the late actor whose early films made waves in Kerala’s entertainment history when Gopi was in his formative years. His range of histrionics has for long been undisputed. Sonal Mansingh once said, “Gopi is the most powerful dancer I’ve ever come across.” Piquantly, the Odissi danseuse went on to win a Vibhushan, while Gopi only got a Padma Shri. That, sadly, remains the case till date.

(The writer is an arts journalist based in Thrissur.) 

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