He died on Sunday the 12th of October, 2003, quietly in sleep and at peace with the world, in London, one of his many homes in the world. A world, he dominated from the time he stepped on stage at the behest of the Yuvaraj of Mysore, in 1928, and continued to rule as India’s Nijinsky, until the 1960s.
Bissano Ram Gopal was born in Bangalore on 20th November 1912 (Bees – twenty in Hindi, hence Bissano) to a Burmese mother and a Rajput father. His parental home, the Torquay Castle, in Benson town, was a palatial mansion with swimming pool and tennis courts, befitting the stature of his barrister father but Ram was interested not in the legalities of life but in the mysteries of movement.
To say he was a born dancer would be stating the obvious. Ram Gopal was India’s first truly international-level, classical dancer. In his statuesque body and poses, Bharatanatyam sat very well, although by his own admission “my left side is Bharatanatyam and the right side is Kathakali and in my legs lies Kathak”. He was indeed trained in all the three principal styles in vogue then (Orissi had not even been “discovered” until 1954 or officially established in 1958).
He was trained in Bharatanatyam by two giants of the time, Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Guru Kattumanarkoil Muthukumaran Pillai, and in Kathakali by Kunjukurup and Vallathol Narayanan Menon himself presiding at Kalamandalam. For Kathak he was trained by Guru Jailal and Sohanlal. Ram was one of the first to team up with women dancers like Tara Chaudhri, Shevanti, Mrinalii Sarabhai, Retna Mohini-Bresson, M.K. Saroja and later with Kathak dancers like Kumudini Lakhia. He created travelling dance companies the likes of which the world, especially Europe, had not seen before although he gave credit for his inspiration to the other light of his times, Uday Shankar, whose example had preceded Ram’s by a decade.
La Meri the American ethnic-dancer “discovered” his true potential and took him on in 1936 as a dancing partner on his first tour and since then Ram traveled the world many times over. Polish critic Tadeus Zelinski called him the “Nijinksy of India” while Cecil B, De Mille introduced him to Sol Hurok. Feted and fawned upon, he was like an Indian god come alive. Ram Gopal’s magic lasted far beyond the few active dancing years he had. He performed in some of the best known theatres of the world, including The Grand Theatre, Opera House in Poland; the Palais du Louvre and Muisee Guimet in Paris, the Aldwyeh in London and the Town Hall in Stockholm where the Nobel Prize Ceremony is conducted.
He has been immortalized through two films made on him: “Aum Shiva” and “Ram” by the famous French film-maker Lamorisse. David Lean was planning a film based on Ram’s life and the script and shooting were in progress when Lean died. The last record of Ram in India was captured on a digital film by Ashish Khokar in 1998.
Ram Gopal leaves no student of merit. As per my theory (and study) all great masters don’t have students, only followers or copycats. The lives of several masters like Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, Bala, Rukmini Devi, Sitara Devi, M.K. Saroja, Vyjanthimala, Kamala Laxman and many more (including top musicians) show that great performing artistes need not necessarily be great gurus or teachers. Their art is a gift of the gods which begins and ends with them. Ram Gopal is no more but lives on in the minds and eyes of those who saw him stride this planet. He was the king of dance – Nataraja indeed!
Till her death five years ago, French patroness Claude Lamorisse looked after him. Nani Bhatt, Pam Cullen and Denise Iredell were his support in London during his end years when he lived in an old-age home. It is a shame that India did not even bestow a national honour on such an illustrious son. (the Sangeet Natak Akademi belatedly made him a Fellow in the late eighties but Ram did not care to receive it), although the Queen of England gave him an Order of the British Empire (OBE), a few years ago. But for this king of the dance world, the beauty of movement and its manifestation was its own reward. With Ram, a whole era has ended. Hey Ram!
Noted dance historian, editor and publisher of dance books and biographies Ashish Khokar is Ram Gopal’s official biographer. He has over 25 books to his credit, besides over 2000 writings on Indian dance.