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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mahanatyamani Kalamandalam Gopi

I am always mesmerized by Kathakali when I watch it on TV. I have never watched it live and wish I would someday. Ajayan of Mint profiles Kalamandalam Gopi, a person who expanded Kathakali's fame.

Training at Kalamandalam was rigorous—from 4 am till 10 pm, under maestros such as Ramankutty Nair, Padmanabhan Nair and Krishnakutty Warrier. It lasted for seven long years. “It is the dedication of those teachers that has helped me grow to these heights,” says Gopi.

Kathakali has its roots in Krishnaattom (dance) which was developed and popularized by the Zamorin, who ruled Kozhikode in the 17th century. It is based on the famous 12th-century Sanskrit poem Geeta Govinda which celebrates the love of Lord Krishna for Radha. The ruler of Kottarakkara, a fiefdom in south Kerala, gave form to another play, Ramanattom, based on the life of Lord Rama. These masked plays were a precursor to Kathakali. In the 18th century, the ruler of Kottayam in central Kerala gave Kathakali its current name, along with its present form, making innovations in the costumes, stylization and presentation, and basing it on dramatic episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Traditionally, stories based on the epics were composed to be performed over a whole night, but with time they have become more concise, focusing only the dramatic and popular parts that last from two to four hours....

Gopi still remembers his performance as Bhima in Paris in the 1980s. Enacting an episode of the Mahabharata, he was to kill Duryodhana. “I was very young then. Bhima was to pull out the intestines of Duryodhana and, to an extent, I overdid it. A pregnant woman in the front row was shocked at the performance and fainted,” he recalls.

Three factors are crucial in the making of any good Kathakali actor—a body and face ideal for the Kathakali costume and make-up, acting and expressive abilities and rigorous training. “What one finds in Gopi is a rare and happy blend of all these,” says M.V. Narayanan. “He is actually the only actor today who can present with equal ease such highly technical and systematized roles like that of Arjun or Bhim or Yudhisthira, as well as the more ‘emotive’ and ‘freewheeling’ roles such as Nala and Karna.”