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Gopal Venu- Indian under spotlight

Gopal Venu- Indian under spotlight

Gopal Venu is as humble a person as he is the master of various traditional arts of Kerala such as the Kuttiyatam, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Pavakathakali etc. He is one of the flag bearer artists who have helped revive the classical and folk arts of Kerala from the decline and a possible eventual extinction.


Gopal Venu

Gopal Venu is not new to Paris and to the French audiences having performed in France regularly since the 1980s. Here the maestro shares his thoughts on various performing arts of Kerala in their contemporary context and his role in them.


IIP: Kerala is very rich in its traditions and performing arts some of which have been in decline in the modern times. You have been at the helm of revival of Pavakathakali with the Sangeet Natak Academy, Tholpavakoothu, Kummattikali, Mudiyettu etc. Comments ?
GV: When I was a student of Kathakali even at the very young age, I was curious to probe into the evolution of various aspects of this dance- drama form. This led me to the discovery that in the course of evolution of a classical dance drama, like Kathakali, it had drawn elements from many other ritual and folk performances of Kerala as well as from surrounding areas. This is how I got interested in all forms of arts of the region and had a strong feeling to preserve them. Since then I have made several attempts to rejuvenate those forms at the stage of extinction or obsolete in the modern times. I started studying Kathakali for few years and then was researching and notating the language of gesticulation or mudras. When I saw the maestro Ammannur Madhava Chakyar performing at the Temple Theatre in Trichur, I was thunderstruck by the performance and realized that all I wanted to do with this life was to ensure that this great tradition do not die with the last guru. I became his disciple and has established small Gurukul at his residence where younger generation was trained since then. Preserving these traditional arts is as necessary as it is to preserve the environment.

IIP: You started your training in Kathakali at the age of 13. Now you train youngsters in the gurukal system. The average duration of course is 10-15 years. Gurukul system instills the necessary discipline and life long commitment. Comments.
GV: The traditional arts were always preserved and transformed as an intangible knowledge we have inherited from generation to generation. Theatre tradition only lives on through the most outstanding practitioners of the period. The creativity of the maestros was always reflected in every age in these art forms. An artist is mature enough to become a master teacher only when he reaches around sixty years of age. To transfer the entire wealth of knowledge he has gathered during his life time is possible only in an informal teaching for a long period of time around 15 years. All the greatest artists till the last generation were shaped and brought up with such an in depth learning.

IIP: Today Kuttiyattam survives because of a few great masters. How important is it for the younger generation to understand the responsibility they have- to carry the tradition forward- when they come to learn these dances and theatre from you ?
GV: For those who have taken Kutiyattam upon themselves today, it is no longer the same context of those who sustained it earlier which defines the tradition. As Kutiyattam has come out of the temple and the caste-based family tradition, its artistic value and aesthetic potential cannot be ignored by confining it to orthodoxy. Ways have to be found which enable the growth while preserving all the aesthetic and spiritual values enshrined in Kutiyattam. There must be permanent patronage in place to encourage members of the younger generation who are trained professionally and have a feeling that they are protected to preserve an intangible heritage undisturbed by the changing attitude of the society. They feel more responsible to carry the tradition forward when they feel that the community supports them. In fact most of the precious knowledge is preserved in this manner in India and other countries.

IIP: You have written quite a few books on the subject of traditions and dances of Kerala including Kathakali and Kuttiyattam. This must be an important step in archiving documents for posterity's sake who can benefit from the richness of your experience. Please share your thoughts with us.
GV. Attempts were made in every period through which Indian performing arts emerged to streamline and to document the fundamental concepts. Perhaps it can be claimed that the largest of such a collection is found in India. Without any hesitation, it can be said that one of the great wonders of the world of dance is Bharata's 'Natya sastra'*. Though the treatise on Natya composed prior to Bharata are not available to us, it may be said that our serious attempts to analyse and study dance and document is such an endeavor that it has a history as old as Indian dance itself. Following the footsteps of the Natya sastra, many treatises were written about dance in Sanskrit and other regional languages. In all these works we will be able to find elaborations on dance styles and concepts that were in vogue during those times. When we read these work closely, we will find that these treatises were composed by those who had practical knowledge in these styles. It also has to be added here that our ancestors wrote in detail what they were convinced was endemic and rare knowledge essential for the sustenance and growth of an art. This was their gift to the future generations. The books that I have written are all compilations of my home work towards the rejuvenation activities. I consider my research work in various performing arts as a small drop in that vast ocean of knowledge. Since the purpose of my research was not the means to any (educational) degree, there were no compulsions and other constraints of a research plan or a time frame.


IIP: You have travelled all over the world for your performances. Any particular memorable performance ? You were in Paris last month for Pavakathakali. How has the response of French public been to your work ?
GV: Since 1979, I have been travelling and performing in different parts of the world. I have varied experiences performing in the temples of Kerala, in rural villages and in front of the urban audience in India and in other countries. I always give preference to performing opportunities in Kerala itself . When the play Sakuntala was produced in Kutiyattam there where several opportunities to perform the entire play in three or four days in countries like Italy at the Torino Settembre Musica' Festival, Roma Europa Festival in Rome; Switzerland in Palermo under the auspices of Ateliers d'ethnomusicologie, Geneva; Austria at the Linz 2009 Kulturhauptstadt Europas; Japan at the Morishita Studio, Tokyo; etc. An Indian play in an Indian language for such a long duration in an alien country had never happened before. The most memorable performance was in 2008 when we did the entire Sakuntala as a single performance as a seven hours thirty minutes duration at the Roma Europa Festival. Now we are going to have the same experience on 26th June at SallePleyel in Paris. Since 1980, my troupes has performed in Paris. In 1982 and 1986, we came to Paris with my Guru the legendary Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. It was a memorable experience. PavaKathakali also was received very well by the French audience. There are always very enthusiastic spectators not only in Paris but in other parts of France as well.

IIP: Tell us something more about Abhijnana Shakuntalam and its representation by the troupe of Natana Kairali.

GV: Kutiyattam, even today, is not free from the pressure of the orthodoxy. Usually only the plays which has a production manual written down in the ancient days only were produced in Kutiyattam. The fundamentalists believe that there is no space for innovations in Kutiyattam. They want only the traditional repertoire to be repeated. When I was preparing for the production of the play Sakuntala there were some criticism. During the rehearsal period, my mentor Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was consulted on various occasions and he was very positive. Dr. K.P Narayana Pisharody, the senior most Sanskrit scholar and an authority on Kutiyattam, visited us several times and has given all his blessings and advices. When the play was premièred, it was appreciated beyond our expectations. It took one year to do the homework and after that started the rehearsals of the play. The World Theatre Project based in Sweden initiated by Peter Oskarson was the main inspiration for this venture. The young generation, that was trained in the Ammannur Gurukulam and Natana Kairlai, had seen and heard about other art forms around the world. This had greatly enriched their cultural understanding of the theatre world and they were greatly enthused to work in the play Abhijnana Sakuntalam or Sakuntala.


More about Gopal Venu

Gopal Venu was born on July 1st, 1947. Like other artists, he trained in Kathakali while still very young followed by training in Kuttiyattam under the guidance of stalwarts such as Ammanur Madhava Chakiar and Mr. Ammanur Parameshwara Chakiar.


Gopal Venu took the traditional arts of Kerala beyond its borders not only to a pan-Indian audience but also to other countries where he has performed- France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, England, Sweden, Greece, Poland, Sovient Union, Mozambique, Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka etc.

  Gopal Venu


Not only is Gopal Venu a maestro as a performing artist, his role in reviving the traditional performing arts of Kerala is monumental. Kuttiyattam, the oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre of the world is one among many others art forms- Pavakathakali (Glove Puppet), Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppetry), Kakarissi Natakam (folk theatre), Mudiyettu (ritual dance drama), Padayani (religious ritual dance) ,Kummattikali (folk dance), - that have been revived by the commitment and efforts of artists such as Gopal Venu.


Gopal Venu is at the helm of Natana Kairali- a centre that was established under the Ammanur Chakyar Madhom to revive and maintain the traditional and classical arts of Kerala. The centre is based in Thrissur district of Kerala where youngsters are trained in these art forms in the traditional gurukul system of learning.


Some of his published works include the 'Alphabet of Gestures in Kathakali' (1968), 'Puppetry and Lesser Known Dance Traditions of Kerala' (1990), 'Kathakalimudra Nighantu' (1994),'The Language of Kathakali' (2000), 'Into the World of Kutiyattam with the Legendary Ammanur Madhava Chakyar' (2002) etc.


He has been honoured by various awards such as the Kerala Sahitya Academy award (1977), Homi Babha Fellowship (1985), Senior Fellowship, Department of Culture, Government of India (1982), Goethe Institute Scholarship (1989) etc.


*Natya Sastra was a treatise said to have been written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD by Bharata. It is a highly codified text for performing arts, not only for the performers but for the spectators as well. No wonder then that performance of arts such as Kuttiyattam was confined for the Brahmin elite. This elitist nature may have been a factor in the survival of such arts through thousand of years.