Ram had asked me to write his biography. After my first visit to London in 1969, he invited me to stay with him at his house in Norbury.
It was in December 1957 that I met renowned Kathak dancer and choreographer Kumudini Lakhia in Mumbai. She had returned from London after partnering Ram Gopal in his choreographic work The Legend of Taj Mahal which was premiered at Edinburgh Festival in 1956. I had of course heard of Ram Gopal as I did of another senior pioneer dancer Uday Shankar. Kumudini gave me Ram Gopal’s autobiography, Rhythm in the Heavens, which was published a few months ago.
It was indeed an unputdownable autobiography. Quite fascinating and almost looked like a fairy tale. That someday I would meet such a charismatic dancer I had not even imagined. However, it was in April 1968 that I met him in Mumbai. His former partner Satyavati Gopalan, a Kathakali dancer, informed me about Ram’s visiting Mumbai. I was quite excited to learn about his visit and requested her to take me along with her to meet him.
I was writing for an English daily as their dance critic. I had interviewed Uday Shankar during that period and my story was published in Sunday edition with Uday Shankar’s photographs. Satyavati showed it to Ram and he seemed to be impressed reading my interview. Not only that but also Satyavati brought him to my residence at Ivroine where I was staying opposite Oval and Rajabai Tower.
What a handsome man he was! And spoke in chaste British accent. Over a cup of tea, he asked me about the dance-drama traditions of Bhagavata Mela which was alive in few villages in Tanjore district. I had read about those dance-dramas by Mohan Khokar in an article in a special issue of Marg magazine edited by Mulk Raj Anand. We talked about many dancers and the dance scene as it was then all agog with revival of classical dance forms. I requested him to give me an interview for the English daily I was working for. He readily agreed. I think since he had read my interview with Uday Shankar, and liked it, he thought it would be nice to give an interview to me as a dance critic.
That was the beginning of our friendship. He had given me his excellent programme book with beautiful photographs of his with Kumudini Lakhia in a Bharatanatyam duet. It carried photos of his placing flowers on the grave of Russian impresario Diaghilev on an island near Venice. And also his colourful portrait and exquisite drawings by eminent painter Feliks Topolski.
Since I had read his biography I wanted to know more about his present projects. He told me about a film that Hollywood film director David Lean was planning to make on him. Ram Gopal had met Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, who had introduced Ram to great impresario Sol Hurok. It was Sol Hurok who had spotted Uday Shankar when he performed in Paris and took his troupe to America many times. He had also presented Ram Gopal for the first time in New York in a solo in 1938. From there Ram went to Paris in 1939, where he had performed with Sohanlal, another traditional Kathak dancer. From there Ram Gopal appeared in London at the Aldwych theatre, which was a turning point in his life as he won the London audience overnight by his stage presentation, magnificent headgears, costumes, light design and showmanship. He also met Queen Elizabeth.
Ram Goapl told me that during his Aldwych season, the famous Russian ballet dancer Nijinsky had come to see him and he was overwhelmed by that world famous dancer’s desire to see the Indian God dancing. Their meeting was memorable. Not only that but also later one of the Polish critic described Ram Gopal as Indian Nijinsky. That was the highest compliment Ram Gopal ever received in his life and valued it.
But before becoming a most popular Indian dancer of London audiences, Ram’s life was not an easy one.
Born of a Rajput father, a successful barrister and a Burmese mother, Ram was from his childhood drawn to dance inexplicably. He was born on November 20, 1912 and was fondly named Bissanobar, after his date of birth. He would joke and say Bissano was the Burmese name of Lord Vishnu! His father wanted him to follow his footsteps and become a barrister. Ram had no desire to be one. He wanted to be a dancer. He would dance privately to recorded music along with his friend U.S. Krishna Rao. Ram came to know of Kathakali from a scholar and ran away to Kerala Kala Mandalam to study under Kunchu Kurup and Chandu Panicker.
He performed before the Yuvraj of Mysore who encouraged him and persuaded Ram’s father to let him study dance. Ram also studied Bharatanatyam under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur and excelled in it. It so happened that in 1936 or there about from America an ethnic dancer La Meri came to Bangalore to study Bharatanatyam, with her troupe on a dance tour of Far East countries. She enquired a Parsi manager of Empire theatre if there was a young dancer whom she can take along for the tour of Far East. He recommended Ram Gopal, whom La Meri asked to join her troupe and partner her. Ram took a quick decision and said he would. Ram’s father was not pleased with his decision and warned him that he might return disappointed. But the die was cast and Ram went off with La Meri to Java, Bali, Indonesia and Burma and from there to Japan. La Meri had studied few items of Bharatanatyam like Alarippu, Sabdam and Tillana. Ram and her dancing an Indian dance received good appreciation, but in Tokyo when the press exclusively praised the Indian God, La Meri was furious and dropped him from her company and left him behind and went off to other cities.
Ram was devastated. But as luck would have it, a Polish journalist and impresario by name Janta took him under his wings. Ram went with him to San Francisco and toured with him in America before returning to India. His parents were pleased that he had returned and reconciled to let him carve a career of a dancer. Their palatial residence Torquay Castle soon turned into a dance academy where great masters came to teach dance. Dancers like Mrinalini Sarabhai, Tara Chaudhary, Shevanti, young M.K. Saroja, other local dancers and others from different states were a part of Ram’s company. He and Tara Chaudhary performed as Lord Shiva and Parvati.
Mrinalini Sarabhai left Ram’s company to start her own career as a dancer, met space scientist Dr Vikram Sarabhai, married him and settled in Gujarat establishing her Darpana Academy. Ram after the World War returned to London and had most successful tour of Europe. In 1948 he invited Kumudini Lakhia to join his company in London and along with Shevanti, Satyavati and Kumudini he mesmerised Europe. His fame spread far and wide.
Very few would remember that he acted in the British film The Elephant Walk with another famous actor Sabu and ravishing beauty Elizabeth Taylor. In another British film titled The Purple Plain he appeared as manager Mr Phang, with Gregory Peck who played the role of an Air Force officer.
But it was dance that was most dear to his heart. The critics in London raved about his stage presence, physical beauty, costumes and way of presenting dance forms Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kathak and even Manipuri in an attractive manner. He was able to capture the fancy of audience with his Indian solo dance performances along with group performances. He decided to settle down in London and in 1962 established Academy of Indian classical dances.
His choreographic works included Dance of Shiva, Dance of the Setting sun, the Legend of Taj Mahal, also a solo he choreographed based on the dance of a swan in Kathakali creating golden wings eagle dance, and performing with great flair.
French film director Albert Lamorisse was interested in making a film on him. Unfortunately, he passed away in a tragic accident. But his wife Claude Lamorisse undertook to make a film on Ram.
For that Ram Gopal came to India. He was fond of Kerala and Kerala massage. During my visit to London in 1969 I used to meet Ram regularly and we would go and see at Covent Garden Bolshoi Ballets from Moscow. The great ballerina Galina Ulanova had specially come to London for the season and was coaching Maya Plisetskaya, another famous Russian ballerina. We used to go and watch the rehearsals. Ram knew both the ballerinas who also admired Ram.
Ram invited me to go with him to Kerala and assist him for the film for shooting at Kerala Kala Mandalam and introduce Claude La Morrise to the great gurus. We went to Palghat and met his guru Kunchu Kurup who was very old but recognised Ram, their meeting was very touching. Kunchu Kurup blessed him and their meeting has been filmed in the film Aum Shiva made in 1970. Claude also made another film Nataraj: King of Dance and World of Ram Gopal in 1973.
I have happy memories of staying with Ram in Kerala where we used to have famous massage. There were restrictions regarding food during the period when we took massage. But Ram would not observe them. He would order a taxi and we would go off to a nearby city where in a hotel Ram would order food. Once the food took long time to be served, Ram saw a young Malayali couple with plates of food and very charmingly went to their table, and taking a plate took half of the food from their plate smiling and telling the couple that he was too hungry and would they mined if he shared food with them? I was taken aback and decided to hide under the table. But Ram had charmed the couple and they gladly parted with their ordered food.
Ram had asked me to write his biography. After my first visit to London in 1969, he invited me to stay with him at his house in Norbury. He showed me rare photographs and brochures, programme books, reviews, collection of books on dance, rare paintings and enough material to work upon. But he was not forthcoming about many things, in particular his date of birth. He would not let me mention that. He would speak of his glorious past, great masters, dancers he loved like Balasaraswati, Bhanumati and Varalakshmi whose dance he adored. He spoke warmly of Kalanidhi Narayanan, Satyavati, Shevanti, Shevanti’s husband Rajeswar who used to perform with Ram and they looked like two brothers. I had seen a film on Ram Gopal in collection of Stanvac Petrol Company. And a rare glimpse in a film made by Pathe. He would order sweets and lazy around but our work on biography would be stalled.
We were together in Toronto in 1980 for a dance conference where Kitappa, the great guru and descendant of Tanjore quartette was also present. Their meeting was full of nostalgia and he would speak of rare items he had studied from Meenakshisunderam Pillai. In Toronto the organisers arranged a visit to the ballet school where Ram met famous choreographer Erik Bruhn whom Rudolf Nureyev adored. He knew Ram. When we all met our organiser friend took photographs, which I treasure. From Toronto we came to New York and stayed with our friend Odissi dancer Rajika Puri, where we met Indrani Rahman. Ram and Indrani were great friends. Ram took me to Dance Collection at Lincoln Centre where he showed me the film taken of his tillana he had performed at Jacob’s Pillow Festival in 1954. That film has captured his Bharatanatyam in brilliant manner.
Ram had also invited me to stay with him at Venice where he had moved for some time. But our project of writing biography did not work out. I knew that I cannot write things which were not historically correct. It is a pity that so much material is there which requires a number of scholars to study about an artist who was a phenomenon and like his contemporary Uday Shankar had put Indian classical dance on the world map.
Whenever I visited London I used to meet him. His health was failing with advancing age. He was put in Norbury Old Age Home where he stayed for three years. The last time I visited him was in 2000. He was as usual full of cheer and jolly. My photographer friend Vipul Sangoi took several photos of Ram. He used to wear Mysore pugree and silken dress. He had immaculate taste.
Recognising his great contribution Sangeet Natak awarded him Ratna Sadasya — the highest award in 1990. Queen Elizabeth awarded Order of British Empire in 1999. He passed away on October 12, 2003. His estate is being looked after by Pam Cullen, his friend and a former culture adviser in Indian high commission. She too is very old. Ann David, a professor of dance at Roehampton University is conducting research on Ram Gopal and one hopes her work would be of great value.
Fortunately, Ayisha Abraham, daughter of renowned cartoonist Abu Abraham and an artist, painter, based in Bengaluru, has made a film I Saw God Dance, which captures Ram Gopal’s extraordinary career as a dancer with interviews by me and Kumudini Lakhia. The film has also rare footage of 8 mm colour film taken in 1938 which is digitalised by Ayisha. I too have interviewed him at length 34 years ago for archive of Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1984.
This film would be a great source of information and inspiration for the young generation of dancers. He shall be always remembered as a great dancer who put Indian dance on the world map.
The writer is an eminent dance historian