Ram Gopal dancing in the Temple of Belur, Karnataka
Ram Gopal's Training
Ram Gopal was born in Bangalore early in this century, from an Indian father and a Burmese mother. He received a complete training in Kathakali dance with his gurus Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Kujun Kurup but he was also interested in other forms of folk and temple dancing.
He went abroad several times before and after the second World War and was the first Indian to dance the age-old legends of India in a Japanese theatre. Ram Gopal went to America, Poland, France and was happy to feel that he could understand completely the classic storehouse of European and Indian music. After his return to India, he continued to use the Kathakali dance teachings, gestures and rhythms, but the dances were always creative. He also danced in the Kathak style.
After the war, he resumed his tours abroad, going to Sweden, Norway, Finland and America with his company. In the extract from his autobiography Rhythm in the Heavens that we are presenting below. Ram Gopal gives a vivid testimony of his training as a young dancer under the guidance of Kujun Kurup.
His deeper attitude to life and dance can be summarised by the quotation from Remain Rolland that he chose to put at the beginning of his Autobiography: "For the naked soul there is neither Occident nor Orient. These are only the garments. The world is his home. And his home, being of all, belongs to all."
When training under my gurus in their own towns I went to bed with the chirping of the birds as they settled themselves in the branches of the surrounding banyan and cashew nut trees between seven and eight o'clock at the latest, in the evenings. Hardly had my head touched the woven mat I slept on than I would fall asleep. And always in my sleep I was some God destroying all the dark
devils that kept arising out of the shadows, or Rama, hero prince of the epic Ramayana, wandering in forests accompanied by the beautiful Sita. Inevitably at two o'clock in the morning in the pitch black of our Indian night, I would feel the light touch of Kunju Kurup: "Son, get up, you've only half an hour to arise. Bathe yourself with some water and come and have some coffee or milk. We must work hard today." "We must work hard today." How many days, how many weeks, months, years, went into those words "We must work hard today, you've so much to learn."
Shaking myself out of sleep and fatigue, I would drag myself rumbling to the well, haul up buckets of cold water and often give myself a good splash with a bucketful of water to shock me into full wakeful ness, and then rub myself down quickly with a towel. The nights at that hour in South India are chilly. Then, wearing my dhoti, a piece of white cotton around my waist and legs, I would go to the place of instruction.
In the simple thatched cottage of this great teacher, lessons began with eye practice. And often, I could not help feeling, had a third party seen what went on between my great Guru and myself 'making faces' by the light of kerosene lamps, they would have thought us quite mad. Kunju Kurup, with his right hand raised and forefinger extended, would move his arm with a circular motion first to the right, then left, then cross-ways, forming the figure eight and such-like patterns; all this sitting about three feet away from me. Without moving my head I had to follow with my eyes alone every single pattern that he traced with his forefinger in the air. How my eyes watered! But no matter, I could not stop to wipe away the tears that inevitably came during such practices. The more my eyes wept, the more certain Kunju Kurup was that I was performing these rigid exercises correctly. After about an hour and a half, with perhaps a quick interval or two in between, and after streams of tears had flowed from my eyes, Kunju Kurup would say: "The ghee I've used today must be good and much fresher than yesterday's, for your eyes are redder and you've been able to go on much longer today." By his side was a green banana leaf and by the end of the hour and a half of eye exercises the leaf would be empty of its spoonful of pure ghee. Most of the eye exercises had three tempos: slow, faster and very fast. But how refreshed and strong I felt at the end of these practices! And how my eyes gleamed, like two lights burning from within and filled with fire. I used to be so fascinated by them that
when I caught a glimpse of them in a mirror they seemed truly to belong to those Gods my great teacher talked about always. It was with a start that I realized they belonged in my own face!
Towel wrapped round his head as was his custom, Kunju Kurup would now move closer to me and I could see by lamplight every single expression of his eyes, shining too, and feel his breathing. Taking what remained of the ghee, he would then massage my entire face and neck with his own hands, using all the muscles that give mobility to the face in the expression of the Kathakali dances: about the eyebrows, beneath the eyes, the cheeks, over and above and below both the lips and the sides of the neck. Then a specialized assistant of Kunju Kurup, a masseur trained in the science of the Ayur Vedic medicinal methods, would come in. After covering me liberally with gingelly oil, a sort of mustard oil strengthened with herbs and having a strange odour of its own, peculiar to Malabar, he made me lie face downwards. The masseur would then, with his right foot massage my spine from the base up and then round in semi-circular movements on both my right and left sides. This would be repeated right down to the extremities of my arms and legs. Then I would be made to turn over and, excluding the face the same movements would massage every single muscle of my body, the masseur supporting himself either on a bamboo stick to maintain his balance, or often holding on to some part of the low hanging thatched roof and maintaining an even balance as both feet worked on my body. This finished, and feeling extraordinarily light and toned up, I would be asked to rise and go through a lot of postures and rhythms that made for flexibility and a controlled co-ordination.
With the first light of early morning breaking in through the small windows, Kunju Kurup would order some fresh milk to be boiled. While this was done I would take another quick bath and be ready in a few minutes to join him for his early morning breakfast. Then he would tenderly ask me: "Did you sleep well last night?" Looking at him with surprised confusion, I would catch his eyes laughing, but his face was absolutely immobile. It was only by the comers of his mouth where I looked to see what mood he was really in, being the superb actor that he was, that I would know he was having a mild joke! There would be a one-hour break till about eight-thirty and then back again to the earthen floor, which is supposed to take the heat out of one's body and to be strengthening to the legs for the strenuous practices that went on all the time.
"Today you will be Krishna and 1 shall be your poor childhood friend Sudama who comes to beg for alms." Or, "You shall be the beautiful maiden Damyanti and I shall be your handsome price Nala, and I want you to convince by every look, gesture and expression that you are truly, deeply in love with me." Occasionally he would say: "We've had enough of love this past week; now you shall become the terrible Ravanna and we do battle." And so it went on, right through the varied and rich pantheon of Hindu Gods and demons. I was made to think, act, feel and become each of them and to believe that I 'was' some Divinity or Devil. And I did. Most of the characters we enacted came out of those classics that every Hindu is versed in, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. When it got too hot at a little past midday we would retire for yet another bath. By way of a change I would plunge into the cool waters of a running stream or rivulet. Then a light lunch eaten off banana leaves and a rest for an hour. Then back again, inevitably, to more practice until early evening.
After dinner in the evenings we would sit cross-legged on the floor or on wooden stools and Kunju Kurup would teach me the hand gestures and facial expression only. These were the 'Mudra' sessions. ' Mudras are the elaborate gesture language of the hands by which the dancer tells a story. In the four main schools of Hindu dancing there are some five thousand single and combined double-hand Mudras, or gestures that have to be learnt precisely to produce that 'flow' that is such a characteristic of this form of dance.
Kunju Kurup kept repeating to me: "You must become, you must concentrate and feel so intensely all I tell you when we are working that you are not conscious of the self. The self is forgotten, unimportant, small, of this world. But that 'other self, the God you are portraying, must come to life by sheer will-power and concentration, and this is possible only if you are completely lost in the rhythm of the moment."
In my dance of Siva's Sandhya-nritta-murti, the dance that Siva per forms at the setting of the sun, 'He, Lord of the evening dance', I could not help feeling in this purely personal dance creation of mine, in which I used the Kathakali technique, that I was on Mount Kailasa, those peaks first scaled by Tensing and Hillary. In this dance I had to convey the gently rhythmic movements of the oceans, the winds and the twinkling stars of the evening and show the benign aspects of
Nature at her best. With only the black curtains behind me I so immersed myself in Siva, the Divine Yogi, that I really felt I was sitting in complete isolation on a solitary peak of Mount Kailasa. I was detached, free from all worldliness, lost in a deep meditation, arising slowly to set the world to sleep and to take and absorb into myself all the suffering, tragedy and worry of the world. How could I convince an audience that I was a God unless I had bewitched and enchanted myself? As Arnold Haskell, the critic, says: "You convince me only because you yourself are filled with conviction." And to achieve that, what a lot of endless work and study, suffering and jealousy, it had cost me in my young life! And what a little I had really known, and how despondent it would make me, then as now, when I think of the little I was fortunate enough to learn from my masters, as compared to their vast oceans of knowledge.
For dancing is truly a visual 'rhythm of magic'. As in Yoga, the dancer approaches, becomes 'one with' the Divine. I have often felt myself enter another world. The magical sounds from the clash of the cymbals, the plaintive notes of the Veena and the throbbing golden beats of the Mridangam accompanying the songs of the Gods which the musicians sing, have all opened the ever present 'invisible dimension of another world.'
I remember the first time I danced on the black cylindrical marble floor of Belur, that ancient Hoysala monument built by a king and queen for both of them to pray, meditate and dance on during various temple rituals. What a trance I fell into! I was conscious of the music, and of the silent faces of the Indian spectators for a few brief moments, and then gradually they seemed to dissolve, and in their place I saw only mists and I was back at the very beginning of creation when man's body sang in an ecstatic trance though the mute language of the dance.
From Ram Gopal,
Rhythm in the Heavens,
Seeker and Warburg,
To whom the whole world is the movement of His body,
all music is His speech,
adorned with the jewels of the moon and stars in His hair,
deep in stilled meditation,
to this almighty Being Siva, I make my Obeisance.
Ram Gopal with Retna Mohini-Cartier Bresson
Ram Gopal as Siva in the Temple of Belur
Ram Gopal as Siva, God of Dance