My Guru, My Father
By Vasanti Gopinath Jayaswal
It is indeed very difficult to describe or even write about the one who has influenced me the most and continues to do so even to this day. Acchen and Guru are intertwined in my mind. One role slid into the other with subtle ease. Folks in the US would ask, “Who is your guru?”. I would answer “I have many but the first and foremost is my own father.” He was not just my natana guru but also my spiritual guru. When I think back, I was told about how he conducted my first vidyaarambham in Kollur Mookambika temple. In later years he grabbed my long braids and dipped me in the Souparnika river, when I was a youngster. In Los Angeles he gave me a framed picture of the Shri Mookambika devi with which he travelled with, at the same time taught me her Dhyana shloka. I realize that those three pivotal moments were indeed part of an initiation.
Obedience to his expectations and rules was unquestionably accepted by all, the family, staff and students. Many a lesson was learnt by observing the way he lived and behaved. Even to this day I keep asking myself,” Would he approve of what I am about to do or say?” He was not prone to giving sermons. His advice and reprimanding were stern, brief and always to the point. Interestingly he would use certain phrases in English such as “simple living and high thinking” as to the way our lives should be. In dance classes if we kept repeating mistakes he would remark “Where is your presence of mind?”.
He led a very organized life and maintained a daily routine which he rarely broke. Our lives therefore ended in following a pattern to coincide with his. His office and living quarters were neat, uncluttered and clean. Everything had its rightful place. If any one of us children took something from his office, even though we returned it, he would know that someone had used it. He kept a daily log of expenses incurred, even down to the cost of a matchbox. He was financially very shrewd unlike many artists of his time.
Punctuality was very important to him. If anyone of us was slack, he would not mince words in rebuking us.
A perfectionist in whatever he was engaged in, my father showed this trait not only in his teaching and compositions but also in anything he created. Often, I was called into his office to help with correspondence in English. It was a common practice to compose three or four drafts before the final version. He wanted make sure that the sentences reflected exactly what he had in mind. In dance practices we would go over routines again and again tirelessly until he was satisfied with the result. It was from him that I learnt the art of creative discipline.
Fame never got to him. Most often he dressed in simple clothes and ate simple food. I remember fondly how my brother and I would hang around like beggars until he almost came to the end of eating his lunch. Seeing us he would offer a watery concoction, from his banana leaf. He called this mixture,Tasty. This was a watery mixture made of rice, sambaar and curd, perhaps spiced with a touch of lime pickle. We loved every mouthful of it. He never wasted food and expected us to be the same way. He believed in the dignity of labor and self-sufficiency. In the US one of the stores that thrilled him was Builders Emporium. He appreciated the availability of self- help materials. There were many a night that I would see the light in his room, even as early as 3 am. He would be bent over, hand stitching sequins and beads onto fabric or making ornaments for various performances.
A life of luxury was never desired by him as he always kept in mind his humble upbringing. He was a good provider to his family and made sure that within means we had what we needed for a good life. He also made sure we had a solid education and encouraged us to go on for higher studies. He facilitated residential students to continue their academic education while studying dance. I am well aware of the financial sacrifices he had to make in order for me to go to study in Bangalore and later to the US. His advice was, whatever one does, one must have ambition and work hard.
A student of life and knowledge he was, always ready to learn and improvise. When he visited us in LA, I remember when once I came out of my puja room after my prayers he requested me to repeat a prayer he liked. This was the famous “ Ya devi sarva bhuteyshu…”from the Devi Mahatmyam from Markandeya Puranam. He wrote it down as well as another prayer on Shiva and memorized them both. Years later when I visited Trivandrum, while he was doing puja, there occurred deafening shrieks of a squirrel nearby. Instantly I heard him improvise and say loudly “ Ya devi sarvabhuteyshu keeta roopeyna sumsittha, namastasyaiy namastasyaiy , namastasyaiy namoh namah”. What a beautiful way to ward off negative thoughts and recognize the Mother even in the shrieking of the squirrel.
A passionate gardener, both in Madras and Trivandrum he maintained a lush garden with flowers and vegetables. The coconut groves in both places were well maintained. Early in the morning he would be working in the vegetable patch, a thorthu wrapped around his head and wearing a banian and mundu. He would bring the vegetables to my mother with great joy. He had developed a special technique for making garlands for puja with the multicolored flowers that his garden yielded. He even brought the dried banana stem fiber strings to the US as he knew I had a nice garden. I would comment to my friends that my father had ten green fingers not just a green thumb.
A strict disciplinarian that he was, he had a softer side. In class he may give the impression of being a ruthless teacher, but outside the class he was sympathetic and kind. He showed great tact in handling his staff and servants. It was my father who came to my bedside whenever I took ill or got hurt physically. Many a homemade remedy was administered with patience. I saw him caressing and speaking tenderly to my three year old son, when he took ill on his first India trip. He was known to counsel students and their families when they were going through tough times. His counseling was always confidential. He never spoke ill of others which always amazed me. If he overheard us gossiping, he would shout from far, “Do you not have anything else to do ?”. He enjoyed witty jokes and laughed heartily like a child. I have never known him to have interest in politics and I know he never voted. He totally disapproved of the youth festival scene in Kerala, where parents would influence the judges. By the way I often wonder how he got through life in India without ever paying a bribe !
Early in the morning one could hear the chant to Shaneeshvara and know that my father is taking his shower. Wearing a wet thorthu and continuing to chant he would walk over to the family quarters. He was on his way to do his daily puja. We all stayed away from his path. The puja was quite long and elaborate. Listening to his prayers gave me much needed solace and strength. When done he would come out to the dressing room and while he applied bhasma and placed the tilak on his forehead, he would recite a shloka from Kulashekhara Alvar’s Mukundamala. “Krishna tvadeeya pada pankaja pancharantam.” It describes the state of a Krishna bhakta at the time when the prana exits the body.
After his passing away in October 1987, noticing the state of his students I began to work towards organizing a Global Conference on Guru Gopinath and Kerala Natanam.
During one of the 3 days of the conference in Trivandrum, I expressed my concern as to its outcome, to a student of his, retired atomic scientist Mukherji who was staying at the Ramakrishna Mission at that time. He pointed to me the picture that was the frontispiece in the conference booklet. It was a group photo of the students and staff of Nrityodaya Narthakalayam, my parents’ first dance school. In the center was my father and mother. There I was an infant, seated in the lap of my father. He said, “Look where you are seated. Do not worry. He is there for you. All will be well”.
I am now in the late autumn of my life. I often feel in spirit that I am safely seated in my father’s nurturing and protective lap.
August 2022 Petaluma California
From the book “ Guru Gopinath, the Making of a Legend” by Tapati Choudhurie
Guru Gopinath demonstrates the Nine Basic Emotions, Navarasa in Kathakali Dance Style
Beauty and Love, Shringaara 2. Wonder, Adbhutha 3. Contempt, Haasya
4. Compassion, Karuna 5. Fury, Roudra 6. Valour, Veera
7. Fear, Bhayaanaka 8. Disgust, Bheebhatsa 9. Serenity , Shantha