“From the status of a common man called VM Govindan, it was the great artform of Kathakali that had elevated me to the stature of Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi. I was nurtured by Kathakali via the hands of my great teachers and admirers. It could be that element of commitment in me that still presses me to don the attire and perform untiringly on the stage. Kathakali is means that let me along with my family live a better life”, said the legendary Kathakali artist, Kalamandalam Gopi in an interview given to Mathrubhumi publications in 2017.
Mr Gopi has won great acclaim for his romantic and dramatic portrayal of many a protagonist role (pachcha vesham) in Kathakali, notable among those being Karnan, Nalan and Rukmangadan. The master is equally adept in assuming the more complex (choreographically speaking) roles such as Bheeman of the Kalyanasougandhikam or Bakavadham tales, Dharmaputrar of Kirmeeravadham and Arjuna of Subhadraharanam. Mr Gopi also excels in the pazhuppu roles (Yellow-face) includingBalabhadra, besides having branched out to don variety roles such as the antagonistic roles (Kathivesham) like that of Duryodhana, Ravana, Kattalan, Bali and Keechaka and even Santhanagopalam’s semi-realistic looking Brahmanan.
Mr Gopi who hails from Kothachira village in Kerala, blends astutely the solid body grammar of the extremely stylised Kalluvazhi tradition that had him groomed with the more flexible, part-realistic and emotion-laden techniques of the southern style (Thekkan Chitta) that he had acquired later in his career. No wonder, his admirers along with the art realm of the land often addresses him as Gopiyashan.
As a disciple of Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair and Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair Mr Gopi was trained at the legendary institution of Kerala Kalamandalam. Priot to that, the maestro will also boast of going through a brief career of a more folksy Ottamthullal practitioner. Ottamthullal is a solo dance form complemented by the great poet and satyrist Kunchan Nambiar’s lyrics. His initiation to Kathakali was through a leading master of the art form called Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair at a traditional Brahmin mansion near Kothachira.
By the 1960s, the protagonist roles undertaken by Mr Gopi were complemented by Kottakkal Sivaraman, who had already gained name by then as an exponent of female roles. On this camaraderie Mr Gopi himself had once commented, “The pairing of Sivaraman with me has been often compared to that of the Malayalam tinsel world’s Prem Nazeer and Sheela by at least a few. We have never had any understanding between us to carry on the pairing up until the last stage. Nevertheless, we have always enjoyed a remarkable artistic integrity. It is a pleasant sight that the pair still perform on stage together, although Mr Nair presently also works with Margi Vijayakumar, a younger colleague.
A recipient of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Mr Gopi retired as Principal from Kalamandalam in 1992. He was 55 years of age then after the completion of thirty-six years of tutorial service. The great artist now stays with his wife and two sons in Mundoor, a village near Thrissur. The most striking of all is that the great figure is still busy as a Kathakali artiste. Last but not the least, Mr Gopi is acknowledged by scholars and ardent Kathakali admirers alike as a legitimate successor to Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair’s legacy.