Guru Gopinath Dancing in Mahatma Udhangar (1947, Tamil) and BFI Footage, Plus Thoughts on His Legacy

Saturday, November 2, 2019
How excited I am to recently find two more visual records of Guru Gopinath dancing in the mid-1940s, one in the commercial Tamil film Mahatma Udhangar and one archival find at the British Film Institute (BFI)!  Back in the dance revival decades of pre and post-independence India, Guru Gopinath was among the trained native Kathakali dancers who brought that dance form and its movement vocabulary to other parts of India and the world.  Gopinath did this first through a touring partnership with the American-born dancer known as "Ragini Devi," and later by creating a Kathakali-derived accessible dance form that seems to be known today as "Kerala Natanam."  Gopinath has been featured on the blog twice before in dance footage from the 1950s.  First was his portly and entertaining dance with Guru Gopalakrishnan/the mohini in the mythological "Mohini Bhasmasur" sequence in the 1957 Telugu/Tamil film Mayabazar, and second was the rare archival find of brief clips from his stage performance in the U.S.S.R. in 1954 as part of the Indian Cultural Delegation.  But these new finds are special because they are from a decade earlier, and feature Gopinath looking noticeably younger and thinner!

Gopinath's Dance in Mahatma Udhangar (1947, Tamil)

Mahatma Udhangar (also transliterated Mahathma, Udangar, Udankar) was an unsuccessful release directed by G. Pattu Iyer that "sank without a trace and is barely remembered today" [6], which must explain why there's so little information readily available on the film.  I shared more information about Mahatma Udhangar in my last post rejoicing about finding Kumari Kamala's dance in the film.

Gopinath performs a 2-minute dance as Shiva to instrumental music, and I am in awe of the first half in particular!  In those introductory movements, he moves around an imaginary axis in such a controlled way, and those half-hop transitions (especially at 1:09) between each side are masterful!  Much of it looks derived from or inspired by pure dance movements in Kathakali, and I wonder if this is similar to the type of dancing he did when touring with Ragini Devi in the 1930s or if he intentionally spiced this up for the film.

Naturally the great Uday Shankar's Kathakali-inspired modern dance in the film Kalpana (released the following year in 1948) comes to my mind when watching Gopinath's dance here, but there's a clear contrast in that Gopinath's movements seem much more controlled and grounded, and I strongly sense his extensive dance training.  It's interesting to note that Gopinath was among the earliest local trainees of Kerala's landmark performing arts training institution Kerala Kalamandalam, and like him, it seems many of his Kalamandalam peers followed a similar path after first leaving the institution by partnering with non-Malayali people who were interested in India's dance reclamation and the revival fervor of the time and creating new works and ideas in dance.  After training in his childhood and then at Kalamandalam, Gopinath partnered with the American dancer Ragini Devi, and likewise I have read of his peers joining such high-profile places as Tagore's Santiniketan institution, Uday Shankar's company, and one dancer Ananda Shivaram ventured to Australia with Louise Lightfoot.  The Kathakali movement vocabulary seems to have made an impression on so many during those formative dance revival decades in India, and it's clear that it left an indelible mark on the way group "ballet" style dances are performed and choreographed.  Gopinath's dance in Mahatama Udhangar fits right in with the time period but his talent sparkles especially brightly!

Starts :25

What's also so interesting about this footage is it is an early example of Gopinath's work in the Madras film industry, given that he and his wife Thankamani are said to have moved to Madras sometime in the early-to-mid 1940s where they started the dance school "Natana Nikethan" which drew dance lovers from afar [3,4,19], and they also worked on a number of films, many at Gemini Studios.  This part of Gopinath and Thankamani's life resulted in some fruitful and important connections.  The iconic drum dance in Chandralekha was supposedly in large part the effort of Guru Gopalakrishnan [7], one of the star students of the Natana Nikethan dance school who became sought after by the film studios [13], and Gopinath is said to have introduced the famous Travancore Sisters Lalitha, Padmini, and Ragini to Uday Shankar for his film Kalpana [8].  

Gopinath and Thankamani actually had worked at Gemini Studios a few years before for the 1941 Malayalam film Prahlada directed by K. Subrahmaniam in his debut, in which they both acted and performed dances.  It was their first film participation and would be thrilling to see now, but according to this article at The Hindu the film was not successful and "no print, or a single film frame or a photograph of the film is available now."  However, in The Hindu's "Trailblazer on the dance stage" article from last year about Thankamani, there is a photo whose caption and appearance looks to be a still of Gopinath and Thankamani in Prahlada!  

A couple random online sources claim Gopinath also appeared as the Jesus Christ figure in the 1951 Malayalam film Jeevitha Nauka, but it doesn't look like him to me as evidenced by this screencap from the film that I took.

Archival Footage of Gopinath's Travancore Palace Dance Company

Another fascinating find is a silent archival clip from the BFI's newly-digitized "India on Film: 1899-1947" collection.  An excerpt from a video the BFI titles "Dancers at Trivandrum Gopinath" dated 1946, it is credited as a "Kathakali dance performance by the palace troupe at Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) featur[ing] the great Indian dancer Guru Gopinath (1908-87)" that was filmed by Clarmont Skrine.  It's only 36 seconds, but you can watch the full 7-minute video at the BFI with the restriction that you must be in the UK (or your connection must look like it's in the UK...).  The preview clip is embedded below, and then underneath I've added some screencaps I took from the 7-minute version.

I thought the young woman dancing with Gopinath in the blue blouse below might be Thankamani, but it doesn't quite look like known photos of her and the dancer looks too young Update: Through conversation with Gopinath's daughter Vinodini on Facebook, I learned that this indeed is Thankamani! There are a number of other dancers and musicians seen whose identities I do not know but surely have a rare capture on film.

Left: Thankamani!   Right: Gopinath

This and the Mahatma Udhangar dance are both from the period of Gopinath's life after he partnered with Ragini Devi in presenting Kathakali inspirations and other whimsical stage compositions in India and abroad in the early-to-mid 1930s.  While many sources of information I've found on Gopinath do not always corroborate the same dates, it seems that Gopinath ended his association with Ragini Devi and returned to what is today Kerala sometime in the mid-to-late 1930s, and in the ensuing years he married Thankamani, the first student of the revived and reconstructed female dance form Mohiniyattam also being taught at Kerala Kalamandalam, and inspired by his work with Ragini Devi, Gopinath continued to refine and perform in partnership with Thankamani the style of dance now known as "Kerala Natanam."

At some point during these same years post his return to Kerala, Gopinath was also appointed by the maharaja/royal family of Travancore as a palace dancer and ran the "Shree Chitrodaya Narthakalaya" dance institution and company there [3,4,19,20], and it is this palace troupe that must be the group seen it the BFI video above!

I found more details about the Narthakalaya in a scan at of "The Travancore Directory for 1941 Part 1" document published in 1940 (isn't the internet wonderful in bringing to the public these rare finds!) which reads:
The Sri Chitrodaya Narthakalayam was started on the 6th February 1937, with the permission of the Government, for imparting instruction in the Indian Classical Dance based on Natya Sastra as practised in Kerala.  The Narthakalayam is run as a grant-in-aid institution under the management of Mr. Gopinath, the Palace Dancer, and under the general supervision and guidance of the Palace Sarvadhikariakar ... Instruction is imparted by Mr. Gopinath and Sry. Thankamani (Mrs. Gopinath) supported by a select group of musicians who form the background orchestra.  The course of the instruction to regular pupils extends over a period of four years, at the completion of which certificates will be issued ... The institution is open to all who desire to receive a course of instruction in Indian Classical Dance ... Attached to the Narthakalayam, is a Dancing Troupe which is available for public and private performances in and outside the state.  Arrangements for such performances can be made by correspondence with Mr. Gopinath, Palace Dancer, Trivandrum.
Currently available on ebay is another incredibly rare find, an original invitation from the Government of Travancore for the opening of the Sri Chitrodaya Narthakalayam in 1941 and a signed note from Gopinath himself (pictured below), as well as the event program and a handwritten note.  Maybe the school had its start in 1937 but wasn't fully operational or didn't have it's formal opening until 1941?

More on Guru Gopinath and Kerala Natanam

When I posted about Guru Gopinath before on the blog, I had figured the dance style known today as "Kerala Natanam" that he is attributed to creating was one of the many alternative dance creations and newly-named styles that have regularly appeared in India in the decades following the dance revival as performing artists contest existing "classical" dance categories (or contest a previous contestation!), advocated for overlooked dance styles and communities, and created new dances of their own drawn from the many inspirations of the dance revival.  I assumed Kerala Natanam had never been considered a legitimate dance form given the stronghold of Kathakali and Mohiniattam from Kerala, and I figured it sort of died out or was hardly known.  An article last year reinforced this view, describing it as a style that is "at best a museum piece with few proponents" [8].

But in researching for this post, I discovered that after Gopinath died in the late-1980s, since then there has been a resurgence of interest and practitioners of Kerala Natanam (also transliterated Kerala Nadanam) in Kerala. There are multiple media articles in recent years reporting on the form appearing in dance competitions in Kerala, many performance videos of it on YouTube, and it has recognition now by the Kerala government.  It seems the revival all started in the 90s.  There was a 1993 "global conference on Guru Gopinath and Kerala Nadanam" held in Kerala at which students of Gopinath recognized his "traditional creative dance style originating from Kerala" [21], and soon after in 1994, the Kerala government established the Guru Gopinath Natana Gramam (Guru Gopinath Dance Village) on land given by Gopinath's 1960s-founded dance institution Viswa Kalakendra [4,23,24] (Viswa Kalakendra is still around but focuses on music now rather than dance [22]).  As stated on its website, the Guru Gopinath Dance Village now functions as a "centre for learning, training and research in various Indian dance forms, particularly Keralanatanam, the dance form composed by the maestro Guru Gopinath," and in 2015 a very nice Guru Gopinath National Dance Museum was opened on site [18].

Gopinath portraying Navarasa [image source: 12]

Gopinath seems to have performed both creative Kathakali derivatives/inspirations but also traditional Kathakali dance throughout his lifetime.  In Douglas M. Knight's book Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life, he differentiates that at the All India Dance Festival in Bombay in 1945, there were traditional dancers but also "innovators of modern Indian dance, including Ram Gopal, who mixed several styles into one program, and Gopinath, who presented programs entitled 'Palace Dancer.'"  Yet Gopinath was also listed as performing "Kathakali" in the daytime program for the momentous All India Dance Seminar in New Delhi in 1958, along with the eminent Kathakali Guru Kunchu Kurup, and there were also nighttime Kathakali performances in the program credited to Kerala Kalamandalam and "Guru Kunchu Kurup and Party" [14].

It's hard to get a grasp on what exactly Kerala Natanam "is."  Summarizing most accounts I've read, it can be described as combining the less complex pure dance of Kathakali with the graceful Mohiniyattam dance style.  Watching online clips of "Kerala Natanam" dance from recent years, it looks like what you would imagine the Kerala equivalent of solo dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Kuchipudi to be, drawing its movement vocabulary and some music stylings from that southwest corner of India which makes it distinct.  Mohiniattam has always struck me as being exquisitely beautiful but with limited boundaries that constrain its breadth of movement, and Kathakali seems to be a very stylized and complex dance drama theater tradition.  Given what I've read of Gopinath's intentional efforts to connect his dance style to classical sources like other recognized "classical" dance forms did, it seems like "Kerala Natanam" would have been a better candidate for a reconstructed and robust "classical" solo dance form of Kerala than Mohiniattam was, but Mohiniattam had been established much earlier as a dance form and it claimed connection to female traditions of the past (as with all "classical" dances in India, this history is complex and contested and much beyond the scope of this post!).

I would love to know more about Gopinath's legacy and what really happened, and I wonder how Kerala Natanam is really viewed in Kerala today as a "relative" newcomer given the many dance and performing arts traditions found in that state.  I'm intrigued that Kerala Natanam is not offered at the Kerala Kalamandalam, but it is of course offered at the Guru Gopinath Natanagramam and this promotional group instruction video from the school looks to align it with other formal and respected dance institutions like the Kalamandalam.

There are a few sources I've not been able to find but that surely would be helpful to more fully understand Gopinath's legacy and his dance style.  The most accessible would be the one written in English, Gayathri Subramaniam's 2016 book Kerala Natanam, that aims to document the past and present of the dance form [17].  The others are all in Malayalam, so those of us that don't understand that language would need a translation.  Two are written by Gopinath himself, his 1985 autobiography in Malayalam Ente Jeevitha Smaranakal and his 1970 book Natana Kairali, and another that sounds helpful is Annie Johnson's book Guru Gopinath published in 2013 in Malayalam.  Maybe someday I'll locate these!

Sources and Further Reading:
  1. Cheerath, Bhawani.  "Trailblazer on the Dance Stage" [about Thankamani Gopinath].  The Hindu.  March 22, 2018.
  2. Cheerath, Bhawani. "Guru Gopinath National Dance Museum celebrates Indian dance forms and its tradition."  The Hindu.  November 24, 2017.
  3. Chowdhurie, Tapati.  "An Ode to Perfection." [about Thankamani Gopinath].  The Statesman.  June 2018.
  4. Chowdurie, Tapati. "Epitome of Creative Dynamism." [about Guru Gopinath]. The Statesman. November 2017.
  5. Devi, Ragini.  Dance Dialects of India1972/1990.
  6. Guy, Randor. "Remembering D.K. Pattammal,"  Galatta Cinema, September 2009.
  7. Khokar, Ashish Mohan.  "Obit/Tribute: Guru Gopalakrishnan No More."  2012.
  8. Khokar, Ashish Mohan.  "Remembering Kalamandalam Thankamani and Kelubabu." The Hindu.  April 5, 2018.
  9. Krishna K.R., Kavya.  Dance and 'Gender Performativity': Mohiniyattam and the Making of Malayalee Femininity.  Dissertation.  2014.
  10. Mattson, Rachel Lindsay.  The seductions of dissonance: Ragini Devi and the idea of India in the United States, 1893–1965.  Dissertation.  (Note: This work documents scathing perspectives on Devi's faults and life in a counterbalance to much of the pleasantries written about her.)
  11. Mohan, T Sasi.  "Profile: Guru Gopinath and Kerala Natanam." 2002.
  12. Pandeya, Gayanacharya Avinash C.  The Art of Kathakali.  1961.
  13. Paul, G.S.  "Colossus of his times." [About Guru Gopalakrishnan].  The Hindu. September 13, 2012.
  14. Putcha, Rumya Sree.  "Revisiting the Classical: A Critical History of Kuchipudi Dance."  Dissertation.  2011. [Note: Has a very detailed description and reproduces some information from primary sources about the 1958 All-India Dance Seminar in New Delhi.] 
  15. Rahman, Sukanya.  Dancing in the Family: An Unconventional Memoir of Three Women.  2001.
  16. Ramnath, Ambili.  "A 'real artiste'." [About Guru Gopinath].  The Hindu.  June 19, 2009.  
  17. Sreenivasan, Deepthi.  "Documenting Kerala Natanam.Deccan Chronicle.  December 8, 2016.
  18. Sudhkaran, Abjijeet.  "Museum awaiting greater patronage."  The Hindu.  November 16, 2017.
  19. Vinodini, G.  "Seventy Years of Kerala Natanam."  2002.  [Written by Gopinath's daughter]
  20. Zarrilly, Philip.  The Kathakali Complex: Actor, Performance and Structure.  1984.
  21. "Art Forms."  Bharatha Kshetra.
  22. "Viswa Kala Kendra."  
  23. "Guru Gopinath Natanagramam."
  24. "Guru Gopinath Natana Gramam.  Wikipedia. [Note: Not well sourced.]


  1. Updates: After the post was published, I rather astonishingly received comments from two of Gopinath's daughters. The first was Vinodini Gopinath Sasimohan, who commented here on my Facebook post about this blog post. The second was a comment by Vasanti Jayaswal on my "About Me" blog page, and I have copied her comment here and will reply here:

    "So happy to read about my father Guru Gopinath. I am Vasanti Jayaswal, his oldest daughter and the only one of his children who learned his style and conducted the Kalamandiram Academy of Arts in Los Angeles from 1980-2003.
    Here is more information for you Cassidy.
    1. He did act as Christ in Jeevitha Nouka. The scene was from Magdala Mariam. I was at the preview.
    2. " What exactly is Kerala Natanam?" The Global Conference was organized by me after his passing away. Three days of dance and in addition an exhibition were the highlights. It was then that famous G.Venu, head of Natanakairali,a student of my father defined what Kerala natanam is . In Sanskrit he said " Keraliya Shaastriya Sargaathmaka Nrittham". Simply translated it means A dance form of Kerala that is based on the Shaastras ( in this case dance treatises) and is creative. Unfortunately what is being presented as in Youth festivals and being taught is far from what it really is. If you are interested in knowing more Cassidy please check at the Museum in his name in Trivandrum. We have documented the basics of Kerala Natanam as video- archives. The only student of his currently maintaining actively his syle is Shree Sajeev Nair of Mumbai"
    (Vasanti Jayaswal).

    1. Vasanti, I copied your comment here over from my "About Me" page so that future visitors to this post can see it. My post has been seen and read by two of Guru Gopinath's daughters, how blessed am I! Thank you so much for commenting. Interesting that you are able to confirm that the man portraying the Christ figure in Jeevitha Nouka was indeed Guru Gopinath--he looks so different there!

      You noted that "Unfortunately what is being presented as in Youth festivals and being taught is far from what [Kerala Natanam] really is," which is a view I suspected after doing the limited research I was able to do via internet finds and English-language sources. Would love to visit the museum and its video archives--perhaps someday, if I ever make it to India! :) So happy you were able to see these rare archival finds of your father, a treasure indeed. Best regards, Cassidy.


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