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Guru Gopinath is an epic personality who was instrumental in bringing the nuances of dancing to the general public. For making the Kathakali art form endearing to the people, he simplified many of its features and used simple themes for making them understand the beauty of this dance form. He showed how Indian dance forms can handle themes other than Hindu mythology and history.
Guru Gopinath belonged to a family of Kathakali artists who had about 200 years of contribution in the field of dance in the region prior to him. The great Kathakali artist Champakulam Paachu Pillai was his elder brother. In fact, his family has produced many exponents of Kaplingaadan style of Kathakali. Apart from Kathakali, his family also did farming for earning bread and butter. He was married to Mulakkal Thankamani Amma who was noted Mohiniyattom and Kerala Nadanam exponent at that time.
Born on June 24, 1908 to Madhavi Amma of Perumannur Tharavadu and Kaipilli Sankara Pillai, he was the avid learner of this dance form. He was initiated to Kathakali at the tender age of 13 years, and for 12 years he had rigorous training under the tutelage of great masters of Kathakali such as Champakulam Paramu Pillai, Mathoor Kunjupilla Panicker and Thakazhi Kesava Panicker at Champakulam. Subsequently, he was trained at Kerala Kalamandalam further by Kavalappara Narayanan Nair and Guru Kunju Kurup. The great Kathakali artists like Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalamandalam Madhavan and Ananda Sivaram were his batch mates at Kerala Kalamandalam.
Guru Gopinath is considered as one of the epic personalities of the 20th century. He was a trained Kathakali artist acquainted with both southern (Kaplingaadan) and northern (Kalluvazhi) style of Kathakali. He was a born artist well tempered with traditional disciplines, but perhaps his greatest contribution was his ingenuity to expand the tenets of traditions to help students, teachers and general public.
The tradition in the beginning of the twentieth century was to expand the reach of an art form without contaminating and refining it. Guru Gopinath was subscribed to this school of thought. Hence, he decided to develop a dance form that was new and unique in style and appealing to the ordinary people who had no formal training in any of the classical dance forms. Accordingly, he brought some innovative changes in the existing Kathakali framework to conceptualize a brand-new style of dancing called Kathakali Nadanam, which was later renamed as Kerala Nadanam.
Since he is a creative mentor of Kathakali dance form, he carefully blended selected elements of Mohiniyattom and Koodiyattom with 'mudras' and facial expressions of Kathakali to form a new dance form called Kerala Nadanam. For this feat, he is indebted to Ragini Devi who was an American dancer attracted to Indian dance forms. For promoting this dance form, he performed at various venues with Ragini Devi. In keeping with his view of enhancing the appeal of this dance form, he carefully choreographed it and chose common day-to-day themes for rendition in simple language. This transition brought the Kathakali from the four walls of temples and palaces, and gave acceptability amongst the wide range of audiences. Kathakali was the male bastion. It was he who showed to the world that girls or women can perform and get themselves trained in Kathakali and Kathakali style of dancing.
When Rabindranath Tagore first saw the young Gopinath's stage performance in early thirties, he wrote an appreciation on the dancer:
"Mr. Gopinath is a real artist and I am sure that there are few 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 as today, a mere device of whetting up the jaded appetite of the idle rich. His presence in our midst was an important 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."
About Kerala Nadanam
The mass appeal of Kerala Nadanam, the Kathakali style of dancing, is due to the relevant dressing, melodious music, and the delivery of simple day-to-day stories in simple and understandable language. Thus, when enacting the Christ, the performer dresses like the Christ. Likewise, when enacting different roles, the performer wears appropriate attire to help the general public easily identify the characters.
Guru Gopinath is an eminent dancer and master of Indian Classical dance Kathakali. For popularizing the Kathakali and Kathakali dance, he brought about some innovative changes in Kathakali framework and blended the fine elements of both Mohiniyattom and Koodiyattom with 'mudras' and facial expression of Kathakali. Apart from that, he chose themes not only from mythology and history but also from day-to-day life stories, and gave narratives in simple and identifiable language. As a result of these ground-breaking changes, both Kathakali and Kathakali dance have become popular among general public.