Sunday, August 8, 2010

Felicitating Kalamandalam Gopi

Of the Indian classical dances, Kathakali is one with great dramatic impact, owing to the highly perfected style of narration, the colourful costumes which retain a strong element of symbolism and the powerful vocal and instrumental accompaniments. The stories - old tales retold, are often selected from the epics and other early or traditional sources of literature. Traditionally the performance takes place all night in temples or certain special houses, the only illumination being a large oil lamp - the kalivilakku (kali- dance, vilakku- lamp). So, when the Bangalore Club for Kathakali and the Arts staged an hour long performance in the grand ballroom of the Leela Kempinski hotel, purists raised their eyebrows.

I attended this performance, being a member of the club as it brings highly accomplished artists from their home state, Kerala, to the city of Bangalore to perform. Yesterday's function included a felicitation to Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi, currently one of the best known artists in the field.

As I traipsed in, I was caught unawares by a retinue of Leela Palace staff, pressing upon me delicacies like tandoori prawns, smoked salmon, crab on toast and fruit punch, which I did not refuse. The wonders did not end there.

We all moved to the ballroom, where seats had been laid out and a reasonable stage set up. No one checked for passes or asked for identification. I found myself seated next to the chartered accountant of the society and asked him how they had managed to pay for all the extravaganza (the previous performance that I attended had been in a tiny hall with the musicians standing out on the street welcoming passers by). He said that the owner of the Leela Kempinski hotels was a supporter of the Kathakali club and he had arranged for the felicitation award and for the performance to be held at the hotel.

Before the performance, we heard a small introductory note by Meena Das Narayan, who has just finished making a film on Kalamandalam Gopi and the film trailer was screened. This can be seen at

Though highly abbreviated with credit shots interrupting the footage, the trailer gives a brief glimpse of Kerala and snapshots of some of Kalamandalam Gopi's roles that he no longer performs.

This was followed by a speech by Captain Nair, who apparently began his career in running (highly successful) hotels at the age of 64. He is currently 89, sharp as a pin (or a cocktail stick) and full of joie de vivre. The audience grew restive as he recounted story after story, but I was quite happy to sit back and listen. In a way, he reminded me of my grandfather with his forthright and entertaining tales.

Kalamandalam Gopi came up on the stage to be felicitated, and I was amazed to see that he had a slight build, a ready smile and eyes that twinkled behind his glasses.

Unfortunately he did not perform, but one of his colleagues - Margi Vijayan and several other accomplished dancers played out the second day's narration of Nalacharitam. This performance normally lasts for four days, describing the many twists and turns in the fate of King Nala and his love for the beautiful and much coveted Damayanti, who loves him in turn, but is not allowed to be with him for long after they are wed (blame it on the demons - who are always exciting to watch!).

After the dance, just before we rose to leave, there was an announcement inviting the audience to cocktails. This was obviously a gracious gesture by Captain Nair, though he was not mentioned any time, nor was he very visible at this most amazing of cocktail parties. A bar had been set up in a corner of the large room and a few tables bore a host of nibblies and the most amazing bite-sized desserts - macaroons sandwiched with almond cream, tiramisu that melted in the mouth, tiny fruit tartlets (we couldn't try the others). And then a retinue of waiters appeared, loaded with so many piping-hot appetizers that we couldn't keep track of them - vegetable spring rolls, keema samosas, fried wontons stuffed with duck, crab cutlets on sticks, spicy fried fish, mushrooms on toast, crab on toast, creamed cheese and figs, giant batter fried prawns, minced meat balls, chicken tikkas, tiny chicken burgers...

It was a fairytale feast under chandeliers. Certainly not traditional, but it created a buoyant spirit of bonhomie and good cheer. It was also nice to see all the artists, now almost unrecognizable in their shirts and dhotis, comfortably melting into the crowd and relaxing after their wonderful performance.

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