Legendary Kathakali pioneer Guru Gopinath 
Based on materials from the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection 
e-mail: khokar1960@gmail.com 

Click on images for enlarged version
 October 9, 2008  

On the 20th death anniversary of legendary Kathakali pioneer Guru Gopinath, AMK pens reminiscences celebrating 2008 as his birth centenary year too. 

Guru Gopinath was born on 24th June 1908 at Champakulam and died on 9th October 1987.   

"Gopinath was a shy lad when I first met him, but intelligent and hard-working," notes G Venkatachalam, the pre-independence era art critic, in his book Dance in India. A rather sketchy and personal take on dancers and dance forms, this book served as base material for many, before serious and in-depth books on dance came after Independence. 

"My first contact with Kathakali goes as far back as 1932 and my close association with the Kerala Kalamandalam when I took Ragini Devi to meet Vallathol." The Kalamandalam was housed first in a private residence in Kunnamkulam in a rented building close to the village Mulankunnathukavu. It was only in November of 1930 that the formal building of Kalamandalam got built, thanks largely to poet Vallathol, who initiated a lottery campaign to raise funds for the institution!  He toured all over India for this. Imagine building a dance institution by selling lottery tickets way back in 1930s! It was the first public institution to be started in Kerala for giving systematic training in Kathakali. Later, Pt.Nehru personally donated Rs.14, 000/- to help the cause of Vallathol.  

Kunju Kurup of Thakazi and Narayana Nair of Kavalapura and Ganacharya Samikutty were the three great masters who taught the first batch of students comprising of Madhavan, Krishnan, Kelu, Shivaraman, Haridas among others. Gopinath was the senior most and he had already had training in Travancore under his brother and was a visiting student to learn the Cochin style of Kathakali.  

It is interesting to note that back then, there were clear dividing lines between north and south Kerala! "The Cochinites do not take kindly to the Travancoreans. There is an age-old feud between these two parts of Kerala. The Cochin folk are cleverer than their neighbours, and therefore more cunning; but the Travancoreans are a more generous and brave people. Cochin women are famous for their beauty and the Travancorean men are jealous of this in their hearts of hearts!"  

"And this petty jealousy and provincial feeling colour subtly all that they say and do and extend themselves to the art of Kathakali. The Travancoreans think that their presentation of this art is the best and the most classical; the Cochin dancers do not even bother to listen to such foolish claims!" This, thus, was the level of and approach to dance writing in that era.  

"There is no doubt whatsoever that Kathakali as practised and presented in Cochin is purer in form, richer in abhinaya and more elaborate in technique. These differences do exist and it is observed by competent critics." 

"Gopinath's place in class therefore was difficult and delicate. As a Travancorean, he was often disadvantaged by Cochinites Madhavan, Krishnan and Haridas. While Gopinath's tala was better than Madhavan, he did not get much credit. But Gopinath's humility, modesty and willingness to work hard, won for him sympathy and the friendship of outsiders." 

Thus he came to know American dancer Ragini Devi, when she came to study at the Kalamandalam. When she decided to present a big performance in Bombay, she took Gopinath with her. Rest, as they say, is history. 
Gopinath - Ragini Devi, The Statesman, Oct 1, 1934
Gopinath - Thankamani

The teaming of the two, was the first professional effort in India to popularize Kathakali outside its home state or setting. Way back then, Kathakali was not accepted on par with Bharatanatyam and when attempts were made, it outraged Tamil pandits of dance.  

Ragini Devi's association made Gopinath a star internationally, overnight. India has always suffered from a colonial complex so anything foreign was (and still is!) held to be superior or better.  He arrived on the national stage and soon, international. For tours, he simplified the cumbersome costume, though traditionalists held that against him for not doing full Kathakali make-up and costuming. 

His 'Shiva Parvati' dance in Sringara Lahiri became so popular that it was filmed for the screen. His 'Hunter Dance' was also a great favourite among the public. He was also accorded high status by the Palace of Travancore and made the official Palace dancer. He was in demand for all Palace functions and benefited much by the patronage of the king. 

His annual recitals at Madras Music Academy and Fine Arts Society during the Christmas Week attracted huge crowds. He veered towards films and was also instrumental in getting Padmini, Lalitha and Ragini, popularly known as the Travancore Sisters, to Madras, first to be part of Uday Shankar’s mega dance film, Kalpana, and later to be part of mainstream cinema. 

"There was a spark in the eyes of a little, lazy girl from Kunnumkulam. Her name was  Thankamani, who was the first girl student of Kalamandalam, learning under the doyenne Kalayani Kutty Amma. She sometimes also sang for Kalyani amma's recitals." 

"When Gopinath met her and married her, their marriage had all the flair of the village romance! A Travancorean is certainly not a desirable groom for a Cochin maid, and a bride-hunter from the south is certainly not to be tolerated! That was Cochin view." 

His marriage to Thankamani changed his luck and both performed as a team and won much acclaim and attention.  Their pairing set the tone for many such clones in years to come but Guru Gopinath remains a pioneer who trained many: Krishnan Namboodiri, Ambika (film star); Sivasankaran Menon (Kolkata); Bhaskar Roy Choudhury (New York); Raghu Ram (Madras); Kapil Rahi (Delhi); Suppiah Master (Srilanka), Thankappan, Balakrishnan Menon (Kolkata), Chitrasena (Colombo), Valmiki Banerjee, Chellapan Bhavani (Kottayam), Kusum (Panchgani), Sukumari, Shanti (all actresses), Shekharan and Aloka Paniker (Delhi), Late Usha, the Princess of Santrampur, Rajshree Parthasarthy (Vizag) , Dr. Mathangi (Madras) among the better known names. 

Guru Gopinath and Thankamani amma's three daughters – Vasanthi, Vilasini and Vinodini each participated in their youth in dance and film activity until domesticity claimed them while their only son Venu manages the estate. For a simple but gifted person, Guru Gopinath leaves behind a rich legacy. He was truly a pioneer. We salute him!


Ashish Mohan Khokar is the only dance historian and critic of India in his generation today, with credible outreach and output (over 20 books plus attendance - the yearbook on dance) and continues to serve the cause of dance heritage. He teaches, lectures, presents, conducts dance and its history classes for universities and special interest groups (journalists, NGOs, art schools) in India and abroad.  He remains devoted to the dance art, gifted to him by his parents, the pioneering Mohan Khokar and M K Saroja. He is Bangalore based.