This year marks the birth centenary of Mangatt Mulaykkal Thankamani of Kunnamkulam. She was the first Mohiniattam student of Vallathol Narayana Menon’s Kerala Kalamandalamm, which he founded along with his friend Manakulam Manavikrama Mukunda Raja with an aim to revive the rich art forms of Kerala — Kathakali, Kudyattam and Mohiniattam.
Mohiniattam teacher O Kalyani Amma was easily found to groom students but there were no willing learners because of its ill-repute. However, Thankamani, daughter of Govindan Nair, a tenant of Mukunda Raja, persuaded her to join classes in Kerala Kalamandalam.
Thus the exquisitely beautiful Thankamani became the cynosure of all eyes as a graceful and accomplished dancer. She later married the pioneer of Indian creative dance, Guru Gopinath, who came from a family of Kathakali dancers and had joined Kerala Kalamandalam for special classes.
I was lucky to have started my dance lessons from her when I was about seven or eight years old at Natana Niketan, which was started by Guru Gopinath in Madras in 1942. Soft-natured Thankamani was a hard task master and made sure that students had a strong foundation in the basics. Thus we learnt the postures of Mohiniattam as well as Kerala Natanam — a simplified version of Kathakali.
Our teacher, Guru Gopinath, had popularised and performed it in Bombay along with the American-born Esther Luella (known as Ragini Devi).
Each and every adavu, neck and eyebrow movement accompanied with a divine smile had to be practised again and again till we reached perfection. Only as a grown up woman did I realise the full import of the “divine smile”, for a Mohini is supposed to charm and not allure and that was a subtlety taught from an early age. Thankamani taught us for two years before sending us to the senior guru’s class. Guru Gopinath was strict and we venerated him and dared not open our mouths.
With the support of Sir CP Ramaswamy, the Dewan of Travancore, who was based in Madras, the duo bid farewell to Shree Chitrodaya Nrthakalaya dance institution which was under the Travancore royal family and came to Madras.
Once there, director Subramaniyam (father of dancer Padma Subramaniam) made the first black and white film, Prahlad with Guru Gopinath in the role of Hiranyakasipu and Thankamani in the role of his wife Kayadhu.
It is assumed that they sang their own songs in the film as playback singing was not in vogue those days. Thankamani was an excellent singer too. She had all the qualities of a dancer as described by Bharat Muni in Natya Sastra.
In Natana Niketan she took an active role not only as a teacher, but also as a performer. Costume designing was her forte and she firmly believed in the philosophy of Guru Gopinath whose opinion was that costumery should be according to the character and what the natya demanded.
No programme was complete without the couple performing a duet. Whether they performed Shiva Parvaty or Lakshmi Narayana, audience euphoria followed, so much so that many came to take their blessings backstage after the programme.
As for me, I have a clear memory etched in my mind about my teacher Thankamani in the role of Sita in Ashokvan with her long flowing tresses and her eyes welling up with tears when Guruji as Hanuman jumped to her side from a perched up position and revealed himself to be the messenger of Rama.
And when Ravana appeared she always kept her gaze away from him in a dramatic way and her expression of anger mixed with sorrow in her mukhabhinaya was unparalleled. In the dance drama Sister Nivedita, she fitted seamlessly in the role of Sarada Devi.
Natana Niketan was a happening place, dance aficionados from all over the globe visited it and we had to perform for them. Puja Dance, Raaslila, Mayur Nritya, Purappad and Thodayam were some of the popular numbers we performed. Tour times were happy times when we were all together in the same compartment with Thankamani taking care of us all.
The couple left Madras and settled in Vattiyoorkavu in Thiruvananthapuram for good sometime in 1963, where Guruji found a new school, which he named Viswakalakendra. The Kerala Government has named the place Natanagramam (dance village) which is under the department of culture.
It houses a museum, an open-air auditorium to hold programmes not only on Kerala Natanam, but also in the other dance forms of Kerala. For the centenary year of Thankamani Gopinath many activities are in line at Natanagramam. Thankamani was the strong woman behind the success of a great guru.
Spiritually inclined, she had an intense desire to die on Vaikuntha Ekadasi day in the Hindu calendar of Margasirsha. It is also known as Mokshada Ekadashi, which falls between December and January. It is supposed that it bestows the person liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. A guru with exceptional qualities of head and heart, her life is worthy of emulation.