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Ambassador of Indian dance


WITH THE passing away of Ram Gopal in the U.K., the dance world loses one of the last of the old guard of dancers connected with the story of dance revival in India in the 1930s and later. Rukmini Devi Arundel, Balasaraswati, Uday Shankar, Madame Menaka have all become part of history. Of the contemporaries of Ram Gopal, only Guru U. S. Krishna Rao, who also hails from Bangalore, is amidst us. And Mrinalini Sarabhai is a much younger dancer with whom Ram Gopal danced duets enchanting audiences all over the world.

Krishna Rao has recounted how as an avid young tennis player, he first made the acquaintance of Ram Gopal playing in an adjoining court in Bangalore. He also became the drummer for Ram Gopal's at-the-time nondescript dance comprising some footwork, and the two travelled on a bicycle to perform at various venues. In 1939, invited to Paris, Ram Gopal went with Sohanlal, Kathak dancer, and in the early Forties, he discovered Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur under whom he began his Bharatanatyam journey as a student. Of the two famous male dancers of the time, Uday Shankar became a Modern Dance explorer, while Ram Gopal stuck to the classical forms - both stunning performers carrying the message of Indian dance to the West.

Pictures of Ram Gopal turned out in the briefest of skin-tight shorts, with necklaces adorning his magnificent torso and an exotic headgear crowning the dignified head have become one of the indelible dance images. Ram Gopal's dance transcended gender and regional boundaries. Turned out in exotic costumes, in all probability designed by Western garment experts, Ram Gopal's dance represented not so much a form like Bharatanatyam, Kathak or Kathakali, as an essential Indianness he was trying to convey to western audiences. Strangely, even with his love for the classical vocabulary, he chose to make his home in the West and not in India - which he visited regularly. Perhaps the different Western context gave his creative imagination freedom without tying him down to the orthodox presentation conventions associated with each traditional form.

Dancers he associated with speak of him with great affection. Kumudini Lakhia has always maintained that her sensitivity to how classical dance can sculpt space, came from years spent touring all over the West as a member of Ram Gopal's performing troupe. M. K. Saroja, senior Bharatanatyam dancer reminiscing on her close association with Ram Gopal, thanks to her Guru Muthu Kumara Pillai also teaching Ram Gopal at a point of time, and her husband the late Mohan Khokar's friendship with Ram, talks of how he stayed for long periods in their home. When he left, he never forgot to express in handsome fashion his gratitude for her hospitality and being so well looked after in his old age.

He was a man who did not mince words. I recollect how during one of his later visits to India, a journalist made a passing, if somewhat malicious, reference to his black wig in his write up. Roundly cursing the writer's lack of taste, Ram Gopal said that such information only engaged the mind of those who knew little about the subject of dance.

My last memories of Ram Gopal are of a very frail old man, resplendently clad in brocades and turban sitting slumped on his wheel chair, watching a dance performance in Bangalore. Age might have sapped his physical vitality - but not the mental resilience.

LEELA VENKATARAMAN

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