FeaturesTorch Bearers

Kalamandalam Gopi: The Living Legend of Kathakali

Text: Hari Krishnan Menon, a media professional who has a rich experience in cultural reporting with specialisation in art and photography. Kalamandalam Gopi popular among his followers as Gopiyasan is known to blend the solid body grammar of the highly stylised Kalluvazhi tradition with the more flexible, part-realistic, emotion-laden southern style techniques that he acquired later in his career. As an exponent of Kathakali tradition, his contribution to the art form is unparalleled. He is the living legend of Kathakali.Vadakke Manalath Govindan Nair was born on 21 May 1937 at Kothachira village in Palakkad District of Kerala. He was initiated into learning ‘Thullal’, a classical art form similar in facial makeup to Kathakali. Later, he received Kathakali training under Guru Thekkinkattil Ravunni Nair, his first guru who initiated him into the art form.

Talking about becoming a dancer, he says, “To be frank, I was not very keen to become an actor or dancer.” Kathakali was a common affair in those days, especially for local festivals and nearby wealthy houses. He was always a spectator. He started learning Thullal because it was taught in the nearby ‘Koodallur Mana’ (Namboothiri House). Parameshwaran Nambeesan, his Thullal guru was forming ‘Kalari’ (a traditional training space) and asked Nair’s family if Govindan would be interested to learn. Somehow, he couldn’t complete the advanced training in Thullal and migrated to Kathakali training. “I feel this is because the Kathakali training was administered by the Namboothiris of Mana and my family members worked for them,” he says. The Namboothiris noticed an artiste in him and he received ‘Kacha’ and ‘Mezhukk’, the first training costume and oil to be applied to learn the first steps of Kathakali.

His parents found it difficult to manage the daily needs of a big family but they wished for the boy to have a life. Especially, his mother was the one who used to take care of his needs. She was the one who took an interest. His father was into agriculture work of the Mana, he used to be a caretaker of their property and was busy most of the time. He cannot forget the name of Parameshwaran Nambeesan who was his first teacher in the field of art. He taught him Thullal meticulously. Guru Thekkinkattil Ravunni Nair Ashan was a class actor who was keen on teaching Gopi. ‘Ashan’ is an adjective given to respected teachers. For some reason, Kalari, created and managed by people of Mana had to be wound up. His life was at stake as he had no idea on what to do. That was when the legendary Kathakali singer Neelakandan Nambeesan stepped into his life. Neelakandan was the brother of Parameshwaran Ashan and it was he who initiated Gopi’s entry into Kerala Kalamandalam, the institute which later became a part of his name. It was a Mecca of art and he was fortunate to learn under the legendary guru, actor and dancer Guru Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Warrier. He was his first teacher. 

GP Narasimham

He always had high regards for his mentors Guru Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair and Guru Dr Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair who have transformed him into an accomplished artiste. “I cannot live a day without paying homage to my gurus. They literally moulded the finest craft out of me and recreated a new Govindan who transformed to Gopi who became a Kathakali artist in every aspect,” he says. Both of them were like Godfathers whom he looked up to with fear, respect and love. “They used to punish me so hard even for my minutest mistakes. I have felt many times to commit suicide in the nearby Nila, river,” he says. It was mentally and physically a strenuous act to learn Kathakali as Gopi left home at a young age and the punishment from gurus was too difficult for him to handle. But he says that the tough learning transformed him into a complete man and actor. “The time of training and living a life of an artiste will always be tough until you become something with any art form. Life is not easy,” he adds.

He strongly believes that Kathakali is an art form with a pan-global recognition. “I have travelled with the art to almost all the continents, and the kind of reception which I have received was immense,” he says. He was associated with Kalamandalam as a student for more than 10 years, joined in as a junior teacher and retired as a principal of the prestigious art school of Kerala after 36 years. Still, whenever the institution needs him, he runs to his alma mater. He participates in all the functions and celebrations of the school which is now a deemed university. He is an emeritus professor at the institute and felt happy to share that Kalamandalam has recently documented performances, one of the biggest documentation in duration and the best in quality recently. Kalamandalam and Kathakali are not two different words which work under the ideology of legendary poet and visionary Vallathol Narayana Menon. The presence of Kathakali in the visual representations of India is a proof to show how the art form from the south has influenced the artistic culture of the country.

He is inspired from three things in life, firstly, his gurus, the pain and passion they had towards the art, in turn, to mould and work on him. “I have seen my Ashans literally converting their blood into sweats when they teach and perform Kathakali,” he explains. Secondly, the consciousness that he is part of an age-old tradition of artists who took the art form to what it is today. It is like a family where people live with this art. “I am responsible and need to take this forward, rather committed, it is inspiring,” he says. Thirdly, even at 82, he feels inspired to see the global audience, men, women and kids who treat him like their family wherever he goes. “I have seen young kids call me ‘Gopi Muthassan’, Grandfather, many take me as their good friend, brother and guru. What else does anybody need to be inspired to take the art form forward?” he says.Kathakali has always been on his mind and he invested the remaining time on being a good father and grandfather.

Gopi and Padmanabhan Nair

He has a clear stand on politics and social issues and stays up to date with current affairs. Currently, he stays in Mundoor, Thrissur and participates in cultural activities of Thrissur, within the constraints of his travel and performance of the art.He has been into a strenuous routine of exercise, practice and performance right from his childhood. Earlier, he got up at three in the morning to start his day with ‘Uzhichil’, massaging and ‘Sadkas’, training. Now at 82, he gets up early if he is home and does some basic exercises to keep him healthy. He favours staying at home and adheres to a strict diet. He simply savours whatever his wife prepares. 

Gopi has now become more selective with his performances minimised his travel. “My audience all over the world expects me to perform, but I feel I need to rest to manage my health,” he says. Currently, he is focusing more on acting manuals and trying to share his knowledge to the upcoming generations. As far as Kathakali is concerned he is a keen observer and critical in his suggestions.

Gp and Sivaraman

He made his gurus proud with his performances on stage.  Last year, when he received a national recognition, the entire state of Kerala celebrated his 81st Birthday in the name of ‘Haritham’ in Thrissur. “I feel it as the best moment in my career and life,” he says.Though he is of the opinion that artistes as creative professionals need to be smart to take the art forward, he doesn’t appreciate fusion as he believes in the purity of his art. He says that entertaining aswadakas is also serving the society and only an artist can do it.From his decades of experience as a Kathakali artiste who performed both in India and other countries, he says that whenever he visited a foreign country, the attitude of the people in welcoming and showing respect to an artist has always been great. “I am not sure if they understand our concepts but they learn and prepare before they watch a performance. Their behaviour and conduct in a performance space were beautiful.” He also says that dance festivals are important, as the artiste can travel around with his art and showcase it to a larger crowd. He has attended and participated in many festivals.In a career spanning over several decades, Kalamandalam Gopi has received numerous awards and accolades including Padma Shri by the Government of India, Kalidasa Samman, Central and State Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards, Natya Shiromani and others.

His elder son Jayaraj is into business and younger son Raghuraj is a bank employee and they all appreciate art and are well aware of the pains that Gopi had to go through in life to maintain as a top-notch actor, even at the age of 81. His children support him and his wife Chandrika has been with him through all walks of life. He provided them with a beautiful life as vibrant as his art form Kathakali.

Gallery :