Kathakali Guru Gopinath: Man Of Many Accomplishments

He already has a collection of titles, honours and decorations. As early as 1934, his prowess earned for him the title of 'Abhinava Nataraja' from an All Bengali Music Conference held in Calcutta. No matter that his field was—as it is even now—dance, not music and that his forte was special Oriental Dances—a melange of several styles including Kathakali—and not Bharatanatyam associated with the Lord of Chidambaram. In 1936, he was appointed a palace dancer by the then Maharaja of Travancore.

In 1946, he was given the honorific of 'Natanakalanidhi' at a Malayali conference held in Madras under the auspices of the Kerala Samaj. In 1948, he was appointed 'Guru' at a Malayali Arts Festival and Indian Peoples Theatre Association Conference in Delhi. In 1965, he received the central Sangeet Natak Akademi's award in the Kathakali category. In 1968, he was awarded the title of 'Kala Tilakam' by the Guruvayur Devaswom. In 1972, he was awarded the honorary degree of D. Litt by Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta. In 1972 again, the Travancore Devaswom Board awarded him the title of 'Kala RatIn 1973, the Kerala Sangita Nataka Akademi elected him a Fellow. He has also received the 'Veerasringala', which is the token of highest appreciation from the Maharaja of Travancore; similar tokens of appreciation from the rulers of Cochin, Mysore, Patiala, Dholpur and Bikaner; several medals, cups and shields; and testimonials from several distinguished men of arts and letters.

He may believe he has been honoured enough, but institutions which value his long service to the cause of dance don't seem to think so. Just last October, the Kerala Fine Arts Society in Cochin awarded him the title of 'Nritya Praveen' while the Indian Fine Arts Society in Madras will confer on him the title of 'Sangita Kalasikhamani' this month. The much-decorated artist is simply known as Guru Gopinath today. He is so listed in the programme of the annual conference and festival of the Indian Fine Arts Society over which he will preside. But when he first came into the limelight some 50 years ago, his name was part of a hyphenated double name: Gopinath-Thangamani. The second name belongs to his wife who partnered with him in the era of his Oriental Dances. His name was also associated with another female dancer, Ragini Devi, an American who achieved fame as an Indian dancer and who was the mother of Indrani Rahman. He accompanied her on dance tours abroad. Born in June 1908, Gopinath belongs to the Perumanoor tharawad (family) in Champakulam in Kerala's Alleppey district. His parents were Sankaran Piliai and Madhavi Amma. Over many generations, his family has yielded several distinguished Kathakali artists of the Caplingadan style. Starting at the age of 13, Gopinath trained in Kathakali under five great masters, namely Champakulam Paramu Piliai, Mathoor Kunju Piliai Panicker, Thakazhi Kesava Panicker, Kavalappara Narayana Nair and Kunju Kurup of Kerala Kalamandalam. Between the ages of 14 and 28, he took part in Kathakali performances all over Kerala. He does not talk much about his days of Oriental Dances but they brought him wide recognition.

Gopinath made a mark as a teacher and teacher-administrator as well. He was the Principal of Sri Chitrodaya Narthakalayam in Trivandrum, the Principal of the Kerala Kala Kendra in New Delhi and the Director of Natana Niketan in Madras. He has served as a member of the Kerala and central Sangeet Natak Akademies, the Kerala Kalamandalam, the Kerala State Lalitha Kala Akademi, the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Kerala and a few other organisations. At present he is Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Instructor, Viswa Kala Kendra, Trivandrum. He was also a member of the first Indian cultural delegation of the Government to visit the USSR in 1954. He was a judge of classical dances at the Eighth World Youth Festival held in Helsinki (Finland) in 1961.

He has authored six books: Abhinayamkuram (Malayalam); Classical Dance Poses of India (English); Abhinava Prakasika (Sanskrit and English); Kathakali Natanam (Malayalam) and Tola Natana (Malayalam). He has composed as many as 30 dance ballets and dance dramas. Among the tributes he has received over his long career as an artist, one that stands out is this encomium from Rabindranath Tagore. 'Sri Gopinath is a real artist and I am sure there are not many who could rightfully take their stand by his side either in India or abroad. He brought to my mind glimpses of the great past when dancing was one of the most treasured arts in India and not today a mere device of whetting up the jaded appetite of the idle rich. His presence in our midst was a great lesson and now that dancing is again coming into vogue amongst us, his style should give us a correct lead, for in want of it we are yet groping in the dark." Dewan Bahadur K.S. Ramaswami Sastri, an erudite man of culture, felt that Gopinath and Thangamani "have sublimated the great Kerala dance tradition and made dance the very poetry of movement." Gopinath and Thangamani have three daughters and a son. All are highly educated; none has taken to dance.