V Kaladharan: 2014 is the centenary year of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. I have seen many of your Pushkarans (Nala’s younger brother in Nala Charitam by Unnayi Warrier) in productions where Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was playing the role of Bahuka. When you look at Krishnan Nair’s legacy from the perspective of your many years of Kathakali experience, how do you place him in the history of Kathakali?
Kalamandalam Gopi: I was always fascinated by Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. The first time I saw him I was a student. He was playing the role of Bahuka on the third day of Nala Charitam. I was taking a small role, one of Jivala or Varshenya. I had very little to do in the green room for this role. I spent my time just looking at Krishnan Nair Asan, how he was dressing, how he was transforming himself into Bahuka. I was amazed by that evolution. As a teenager, I wondered whether at any point in my life I would become such a beautiful and handsome actor! Fascination with his stage presence was almost like madness in me. It was not only me, many of my contemporaries were also captivated by his stage presence. I look at his legacy from this point of view.
Whether I was taking a role with him on stage or not, I always treated him as my Guru, though I was never a student of his. If my memory is right, I have been acting with him since 1957. It could be his Bahukan in Nala Charitam and my Nala. And I have played the role of Pushkara in Nala Charitam many a time opposite his Bahuka. Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair used to demand the organizers for my Pushkaran whenever he played Bahukan. Thanks to him, I got a number of stage offers in my early days just because of his liking for my Pushkaran in Nala Charitam. I should recall one more incident here. It was Kalamandalam Krishnan Kutti Poduval [the chenda maestro] who for the first time took me to the south of Thrissur district in Kerala. I was playing the role of Arjuna in Kiratham and I still remember the amazing music of Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup. His music made me act in a very involved way. Many commented on it. After that day’s performance, I started getting many offers of the stage in the southern part of Kerala [where Krishnan Nair was ruling the stage].
V Kaladharan: The creativity of his acting, his theatrics, or his interpretation of Kathakali poetry, what attracted you most?
Kalamandalam Gopi: As I was sharing the stage with him most times, I could not get a view of his performance as the audience got. I always feel sad about this. For a junior artiste like me in the 1960s and ’70s the problem was that I had to be in the green room for another role in the second half of the night. That also prevented me viewing Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair from an audience seat.
V. Kaladharan: Did Krishnan Nair influence your styles?
Kalamandalam Gopi: I can’t say ‘No’. As I have already told you, his stage presence always fascinated me. However, I was not that interested in his ‘cholliyattam’ (enacting the text). There was an ‘alakshyam’ (lack of direction) while approaching the text. But who was going to watch Krishnan Nair Asan for ‘cholliyattam’? All spectators used to say, ‘looking at his face is itself a fulfilling experience’. They were right. But he can’t be replaced. If someone tries to go his way, they would not be successful. He can’t be repeated. As I have explained to you, I was never a student of his; I could not see his performance from the other side of the stage.
V. Kaladharan: You are right. The grammar of acting is totally different in Krishnan Nair and you. But people do tend to believe you are influenced a lot by him. The most probable reason must be the similarity in the stage presence both of you create. Thank you.
(Born in 1937, Kalamandalam Gopi is the most significant actor in Kathakali at present. Many Kathakali scholars consider him heir to the legacy of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair)