Gopika Varma speaks about transforming hurt to motivation
Rarely do we see an individual with royal background set out into the arena of public performances, especially performing arts. An internationally acclaimed classical dancer and a recipient of prestigious honours, Gopika Varma, who was married into the erstwhile royal family of Travancore as the ‘Ammachi’ of the eldest in the line of family succession, ventured into her passion with the complete support of her family members. In a relaxed mood, she shares the reasons that led to such a crucial step, the journey, the restrictions, the adjustments and the transition from being a commoner to the life in a palace.
“I used to get up at 5:30 AM, do eye exercises- ‘Kannu Sadhakam’ and all, during my growing years,” she began. “There were dance classes before and after school, tuitions and homework once back home. I was learning with great masters, but never enjoyed holidays or playing with friends. When all my friends went on holidays, I would cry that I also wanted to go, but my grandmother never allowed me to. She would say, "You're not meant for that." During vacations, I had extensive advanced dance classes which I hated a lot. I never understood the reasons then, however, now I'm thankful. She gave me a very disciplined coaching and those years have groomed me for what I am today.”
Discussing her life in the royal family, she shared, “Being married into the royal family was a huge change. Though we knew each other from childhood and used to visit palace often, the daily life was completely different. I was trained for a whole year by Karthika Thirunal about how to behave, talk, sit for a dinner, what and how to wear etc. I found it difficult during the initial days, but it’s been 31 years now.
Initially I felt sad that I could not go with my husband to temple or a function, as I was from a different community. There were drastic changes everywhere. For instance, in the palace, even for the breakfast all members would assemble at 8.30 am to have idli and chutney everyday, sitting on the floor. On Sundays, chutney would be replaced by sambar. I used to crave for other varieties of food. But my father and husband strictly said that I could have anything I wanted but without skipping this meal. I handled all these situations well, though it was tough. Lots of changes have taken place over the years and now I am like a daughter in the family and I attend all functions along with other members.”
She sounded emotional, on her struggle to be back on professional stage. “To achieve something, you have to be hurt. You have to take advantage of that and use it as motivation. I used to say, "I don't care about my weight, my husband doesn't care about my weight, then what is your problem?" But when someone makes you realize your errors, you have to be very grateful to that person. In my life, I'm very grateful to the mother of a friend and colleague of mine. In front of all the dancers in Chennai, she insulted me. She told me that I had no right to stand in front of her daughter since she was beautiful while I was fat and hence had no right to dance. That changed my life. Till that point, I had never thought I would come back to dance as a professional. I didn't want to dance. But her challenge motivated me - I worked hard, got trained, choreographed and practised a lot!
After the insult, I cried to my mother who became very upset and wanted to defend me. My father, listening to our conversation, suggested to take a piece of paper and write down everything that the woman said to me. There were 11 points in total. Then he asked to go through each point and check if they were true. All 11 statements were correct!
He told me, that we had no right to fight with that lady, because whatever she said was right and that I had two options. I could ignore this, continue living the same way, but if I wanted to dance and prove her wrong, I needed to fix all the 11 points and put tick marks on them, no matter how long it takes. Eventually, out of those 11 points, I got 10 ticks. The only one I was unable to complete was securing my degree. However, bringing up my child, responsibilities as a daughter-in-law and dance performances left me very tired.
Gopika Varma speaks about her contribution to dance and her story telling sessions
It was becoming too exhausting for me till somebody advised, "You don't have to achieve everything. This is for your own mind and health, right?" If I had tried to achieve the 11th one also, then I would have ruined my life. It was good to push myself, but didn't want to take it to the point where I broke. As a mother, I wanted to fulfill my commitments. I'm very grateful to my friend's mother. I'm not saying it sarcastically, because she made me reflect on what I needed to change about myself to become a dancer. The credit goes to my father because he, being an army officer, helped me gracefully overcome all the obstacles with hard work.
“The name Dasyam for my dance school was suggested by my mother in law, which is one of the forms of ‘navabhakti’ and means total surrender. That is my attitude towards dance but I cannot demand the same from my students because it’s up to them to find the role of dance in their lives,” she explained fondly.
The challenges she faced were many. “There were lots of conditions and restrictions to maintain the dignity of the family name,” she said, “I couldn’t perform everywhere because thorough checking was required about the organisers or the venue. Later, when I understood the importance, I took it as my own decision. I'm very particular about where I dance, what I do and with whom I am seen. While having such a background, nobody will come close to irritate you, but they won't help you either.”
She seemed enthusiastic when I wanted to know of her experiments with costume in dance. “This happened after I established as a dancer, when I could withstand demands from others and tell them what I wanted to do. While doing a traditional "Margam" or "Kacheri", I won’t make any such corrections. With a different composition, I make my own changes to the character. If this demands a costume change, I adjust accordingly. But looking at it, you'll know it's a Mohiniyattam costume.
When I do Adishankaracharya, I use flowers and Rudraksha instead of jewellery. It's a Mohiniyattam costume with an orange border. There were questions why I wore red instead of black when doing Kannaki. I visualised Kannaki as "Bhagavathi" not as a deprived girl. While performing as Shoorpanakha the colour of costume changed to green with golden flowers as she was presented as the queen of forest.”
“The different styles in an art form are like different hairstyles. Each person chooses a particular style that suits them. Mohiniyattam has never had a particular set of rules or prescribed syllabus, so artists have the freedom to improvise. The new dancers are incorporating the best from all styles into one,” she pointed out.
“For me, success means being not able to sleep after a performance. The elated feeling that a situation gives is the essence of success.”
She earnestly refuted the argument that Mohiniyattam was a dance form of Devadasis. “There is no evidence to prove that the Mohiniyattam performed now is the same as the art form by Devadasis in history, apart from the similarity in name. The present form of Mohiniyattam has been reinvented and systemised from the time of Maharaja Swati Thirunal. The Devadasis in Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple have never performed Mohiniyattam.”
Adapting to changes is nothing new for her. “I have students from 4 time zones taking online classes. The drawback is that whatever we learn directly from a guru cannot be matched when learning online. I prefer conventional style of classes for dance but in the changing scenario I am finding new methods to impart maximum benefit to students online.”
I enquired about her contribution towards dance. “I have popularised the dance form outside Kerala hence honoured with Kalasree Award by Sangeet Natak Academy. I have been the only artist receiving Kalaimamani Award for a non-Tamil artform from Dr J Jayalalithaa. While dancing at an event celebrating Guru Gobindji’s anniversary, I had choreographed a small piece on the sloka by Guru Nanak about Padmanabha Swami when he visited the temple. I have also done Kulasekhara Alwar of 11th C, Harshavardhana 7th C, Akananoor Purananoor, etc, all of which helped me expand the horizon of knowledge.”
Elated on the success of her story telling sessions, she beams, “I have had a blessed childhood where I could listen to stories from my grand parents and also from my Gurus as part of learning. Later on, my mother-in-law would tell me stories . Now I am passing the stories to others so that they could listen to our age old stories and the legends behind many rituals.
She is not worried about travel restrictions either. “We are used to keeping ourselves busy inside the home in normal situation also. We don’t usually go out unnecessarily. So other than the pandemic affecting the health and lives of people around the world, a direct effect cannot be cited.”
“I have been a part of old traditions as well as the changes in the palace. I am stuck at 18, finding happiness with small things. Everyone keeps telling me to grow up at least now, but I am happy this way.” The smile lingered on her face as we closed the conversation.
(The author is Chairperson CSA, Dir TGL, Editor The Intl Journal, Sr Dir FWO)