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by T Sasi Mohan

Apr 2002

Guru Gopinath is an epic personality of Indian dancing in the twentieth century. He was a great dancer and master of Indian classical dance. It was his early efforts that made the Kerala dance "Kathakali' widely popular and highly acclaimed at home and abroad.

His highest achievement lies in his approach to make "Kathakali" more accessible to teachers, students and audience. And to do this he brought some innovative changes to make a new style of dancing from this ancient dance form known as 'Oriental dance', 'Kathakali Natanam' and later 'Kerala Natanam' (Keralanatanam), without sacrificing its essence and classicism.

Guru Gopinath (Gurugopinath) was one of the greatest masters and performers of Kathakali. He belonged to a family of Kathakali artists, having history of nearly two hundred years. The great Kathakali artist Champakkulam Paachu Pillai is his elder brother.

He was a trained Kathakali artist well versed in both southern (Kaplingaadan) and nothern (Kalluvazhi) style (chitta) of Kathakali. He was a born artist, well tempered through traditional discipline but his contribution was his own ingenuity to expand the framework of tradition.

He is adored as a creative genius who projected Indian style of dancing to the outer world as early as in the beginning of 30s. As a mentor of creative dancing suited to the modern world, he evolved a new style of dancing called 'Kerala Natanam'. For this, he is indebted only to Ragini Devi - the American dancer enticed by Indian dance. (Ragini Devi is the mother of the great Indian dancer Indrani Rehman). The guru Gopinath style of dancing can be called Kathakali simplified.

It was well appreciated that instead of trying to reform Kathakali and thereby contaminating its originality and purity, Guruji developed his own style, that was appealing to the masses who were then devoid of art and dance, without compromising on the classical background. It was he who brought Kathakali out from the courtyards of palaces and temple to the masses. Ordinary people in India, who had no training knowledge in understanding classical dance started enjoying it and appreciating it, only after they had the opportunity of watching Gopinath perform.

Guru Gopinath is respected as a great acharya who was able to develop a shorter syllabus and duration of training for the 12 years long and rigorous Kathakali course, without compromising its essence and without deviating from its classical tradition. Kathakali and dancing were made popular, which was comprehensive to the layman and connoisseur alike. He carved out a style classical in form but popular in appeal through which the fame of Kathakali spread far and wide. In fact his was a signal service to Kathakali and Kerala.

It was Guru Gopinath who showed the outer world the strength, potentiality and adaptability of classical Indian dance to perform themes and stories other than the Indian mythological, devotional or historical ones. He was a genius to find out the language of humanity, the international language of Indian dancing.

Guruji in stage performances in Los Angeles

Lecture demonstration, Trivandrum

Guru Gopinath in Los Angeles

enacting Manav Jeevitham based on
Sankaraachaaryas 'Bhaja Govindam....'

Ramayanam ballet ,enacting
the role of King Dasaratha

Long before Biblical, Anglican or social themes were experimented by various dance styles in India, Guru Gopinath had choreographed dances involving such themes proving the charisma of classicism and adaptability of Indian style in the forties and fifties. His ballets like 'Sree Yeesunaadha Vijayam', 'Divya Naadam' (both biblical), 'Sister Niveditha', 'Chandaala Bhikshuki', 'Kerala Piravi' (on the formation of Kerala State) are a few examples.

Guru Gopinath was an exponent of various styles of Indian dances. The illustrious 'Raam Leela' of Delhi, choreographed and directed by him was its glorious proof. His last choreography 'Ramaayanam' ballet was the most popular one, which was staged more than 1500 times in various parts of Kerala.

Kathakali style of dancing and training was a male monopoly. It was Guru Gopinath who showed that girls can perform Kathakali and Kathakali style of dancing.

He was born on 24th June 1908, as the son of Madhavi Amma of Perumannoor Tharavaad (family), and Kaippilli Sankara Pillai, in Champakkulam, Ambalappuzha Taluk of Alleppy District, Kerala, India. Kathakali and agriculture were the traditional occupations of this Perumannoor family. There were many exponents of Kaplingaadan style of 'Kathakali' in this family.

He was initiated to Kathakali at the age of 13 and had rigorous training for over twelve years under three great masters of Kathakali like Champakkulam Paramu Pillai, Mathoor Kunjupilla Panicker, Thakazhi Kesava Panicker at Champakkulam. Kavalappara Narayanan Nair and Guru Kunju Kurup were his teachers at 'Kerala Kalamandalam' where he was asked to join as a special student in its first batch of Kathakali students. Great Kathakali and dance artists like Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalamandalam Madhavan, Ananda Shivaram were his batch mates.


Guru Gopinath and wife Thankamani

The great Mohiniyattam and Kerala Natanam exponent Mulakkal Thankamani Amma was his wife. Thankamani was the first student of Mohiniyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam in early 30s, when Poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and Manakkulam Mukunda Raja started a course to revive this dying art form. After marriage she became co-dancer and partner of Gopinath. There is no denying the fact that the force behind Guru Gopinath's achievement was the relentless support and rigorous training offered to students by Thankamani. They have four children.

Vasanthi Gopinath Jayaswal, dancer, Social/Cultural worker and Bharatanatyam exponent is his eldest daughter. She is settled in Los Angeles.

Only son G.Venugopal is looking after the properties.

Daughter Vilasini Ramachandran is an I.A.S. officer in Gujarat Cadre, now in Baroda.

Youngest daughter Vinodini Sasi Mohan was a child artist in Malayalam movies in 60's and she is the Chief Administrative Officer of Vishwakalakendra, Trivandrum.

Guru Gopinath as Hanuman In Ramayanam Ballet

Parents of Guruji

Guru Gopalakrishnan, Guru Chandrasekheran, Dancer Thankappan (Film Artist Kamalahassan's guru), Dancer Sundaram (Father of Prabhudeva - famous film artist), Kesavadev, Balan Menon (Calcutta), The Travancore sisters -Lalitha, Padmini, Raagini, Yamini Krishnamoorty, Ambika, Sukumari, Sethulakshmi, Dancer Chellappan, Bhavani, Prof. Sankarankutty, Venuji, Bhaskar (Singapore), Ranjana (America), Suppayya, Velanandan, Korera, Vasanthasena (all belong to Srilanka), Heidi Bruder (Switzerland) Dancer Vasu, Raghuram (Chennai).

Dance by Gopinath Thankamani team in 40s

1. Abinava Nataraja at the Bengal Music Conference held at Calcutta - 1934.

2. Palace Dancer by Maharaja of Travancore - 1936

3. Natana Kalanidhi at All Malayali Conference held in Madras under the auspices of Kerala Samaj - 1936.

4. 'Guru' at Indian People's Theatre Association Conference and All Malayali Arts Festival at Delhi - 1948.

5. 'Kala Thilakam' from Guruvayoor Devaswom in 1968.

6. D.Litt. Degree from Rabindra Bharathi University, Calcutta in 1972.

7. Award of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi

8. 'Kala Ratnam' from Travancore Devaswom Board - 1972.

9. Fellow of Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi in 1973.

10. Award from Sangeeta Nataka Akademi, New Delhi

* Received the 'VEERASRINGALA' (The token of highest appreciation similar to the Olive Crown of Greece) from His Highness, the Maharaja of Travancore.

* He was awarded with KANGANA, SALVA etc. from the Maharaja of Cochin, Mysore, Patiala, Dholpur, Bikaner.

* Received appreciative testimonials from distinguished persons like Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Sri Dileep Kumar Roy, Mahakavi Vallaththol, Sri D.C.Ganguli, Sri N.Ramaswami Sastri, Madam Menaka, Her Highness the Maharani of Travancore, Dr.Cousine, G.Venkitachalam, Sardar K.M.Panicker, S.Katchadourian, Rold. DeMari, M.C.Clusel, Dr.F.W.Thomas, C.R.Reddy, Dr.S.Radhakrishnan, C.Rajagopalachari, Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer, K.M.Munshi, Sarojini Naidu, Pattabhi Seetha Ramayya, Sree Prakasham, Gopala Reddy etc.

1. Principal of Sri Chithrodaya Narthakalalayam, Trivandrum..
2. Court Dancer of the Travancore State.
3. Principal of the Kerala Kala Kendra, New Delhi.
4. Director of Natana Niketan, Madras.
5. Director of Ram Leela, New Delhi.
6. Member of the State Sangeeta Nataka Sangham, Madras.
7. Member of the Central Sangeeta Nataka Akademi, New Delhi.
8. Member of the Kerala Kalamandalam, Central Council, Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi, Kunjan Nambiar Memorial Committee, Kerala State Lalitha Kala Akademi, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Kerala, member of the Advisory Committee of S.S.T. College of Music and Kerala State Jawahar Bal Bhavan, Trivandrum., Chief Administrative Officer, Viswakala Kendra.

1. Abhinayaankuram (Malayalam)
2. Classical Dance Poses of India (English)
3. Ente Jeevitha Smaranakal (Autobiography in Malayalam)
4. Kathakali Natanam (Malayalam)
5. Abhinaya Prakasika (Sanskrit & English)
6. Natana Kairali (Malayalam)
7. Thaalavum Natanavum (Malayalam)

Guru Gopinath has traveled and performed in many parts of the world. He was a member of the first cultural delegation of Independent India to the USSR in 1954.

He was invited as a judge of Classical Dances in the Eighth World Youth Festival held at Helsinki, Finland in 1961.

"Shri 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 as 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."

T.Sasi Mohan is the editor of, the first Internet portal from Kerala. He had been with 'Mathrubhumi Daily' for 20 years and is stationed at Trivandrum.

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