An artist and an art historian chance upon a forgotten dancer
Ram Gopal (1912-2003) was one of India’s first ‘modern’ dancers. A contemporary of the more widely-known Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal is often described by those who know of him as a ‘classical dancer’. But this categorisation is misleading. Trained in Kathakali, Kathak and various other forms, Ram Gopal developed a style of dance in the first half of the twentieth century that cited a range of vocabularies, from Kathakali to Javanese to Classical Ballet. His hybrid choreographies, with their disregard for purity of form and codified technique foreshadow the formal impulses of contemporary dance today. Indeed, his use of a proscenium stage with raised platforms and scenery exploited the theatre’s grandeur—one senses he was interested in constructing a definition of ‘modern’.
Born in Bangalore to a Burmese mother and Rajput father, Ram Gopal was patronised by the Mysore Maharajas. He often danced at their tea parties and in the living rooms of the Mysore elite. Remembered by people who knew him as an exquisitely beautiful creature, he captivated audiences not with the geometric rigour that typified Uday Shankar, but with a more fluid, majestic performance quality. In his performances, he presented a highly exoticised, indeed eroticised, body.
Ram Gopal donned elaborate headdresses and grand costumes that drew inspiration from sources as flung as Indian sculpture and fresco painting. Until his death in an old age home in England, he dressed himself in a silk kurta and the traditional Mysore peta. One can read his entire life as a performed spectacle, with him at its centre. Indeed, Ram Gopal’s 1957 autobiography Ram Gopal: Rhythm in the Heavens reveals his narcissistic tendencies. But this love for himself—the obsession with how he looked and how he was looked at—translated to an extraordinary ability as a solo performer. Many people who saw him dance have said that he alone stood out even in a group performance.
In his autobiography, Ram Gopal reveals his early attraction to dance. When his disapproving father asked, “Why do you dance?”, Ram Gopal replied, “I love to move, to leap, to float…well, just let the spirit seize me at the sound of drums or music…You call it dancing father, I call it Rhythm”.
With the support of the royal family of Mysore, Ram Gopal learned Kathakali in Kerala and continued to perform his classically-inspired but modernly rendered dances almost as ‘revivalist’ artworks. In the 1930s, a chance encounter with the American dancer La Meri led to a successful collaboration between the two and they travelled together throughout Asia. In 1938, Ram Gopal made his United States debut, starting in San Francisco, before making his way to New York City.
When Ram Gopal left for the United States, few beyond Bangalore high society knew of him. But when he returned, he was, by a dancer’s standards, famous. Back in India, Ram Gopal studied Bharatanatyam with Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Guru Kattumanarkoil Muthukumaran Pillai. Eventually, he started his own dance company that included people such as Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kumudini Lakhia, who would go on to become noted dancers in their own right.
After India’s independence from the British, however, Ram Gopal lost patronage. His deviation from the purist, moral (chaste) form of dance that was being promoted by the new Indian government excluded him from the aesthetic and political thrust of the day. His favourability among European audiences was seen as antithetical to the new brand of a decidedly ‘Indian’ dance that was then finding footing in India. Moreover, despite marrying women, Ram Gopal made little effort to hide his sexual preference for men. His publicly queer persona set him apart from the ideal image of the post-independence Indian dancer.
Unable to settle in post-independence Bangalore, Ram Gopal relocated in 1948 to England, where he lived until his death in 2003. He was awarded a Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1990 and the Order of the British Empire in 1999. Still, he remains one of the more obscure figures in modern Indian dance history.
Artist Ayisha Abraham and art historian Ajay Sinha both have had serendipitous encounters with Ram Gopal through archives—domestic and institutional—on two different continents.
Ayisha first discovered Ram Gopal in 2001, while exploring the neighbourhood around her present home in East Bangalore. Searching lost histories of the British Cantonment, Ayisha happened to meet the photographer Tom D’aguir, who lived a few streets away. Tom was Ram Gopal’s close friend and was in his nineties when Ayisha first met him. She says of Tom, “He was an old man, bent with age, with a razor sharp memory of the past. For the months before his death, I visited him regularly, helping him rewind his life with probing questions and an interest in his many pastimes. Upon his death, as his family were moving out his things, they found a plastic bag of old 8mm films wrapped untidily around rusty spools.
This deteriorating 8mm footage was of none other than Ram Gopal dancing in 1938 on the terrace of his large bungalow in Bangalore.
“I knew almost nothing about Ram Gopal”, Ayisha says. “Tom had spoken of him to me, but as Ram Gopal had left India for the UK many years before in 1948, he had practically remained an unknown entity and, for me especially, an abstract and anonymous person”.
Upon finding the footage, Ayisha set out to piece together Ram Gopal’s history in a film and installation project titled I saw a God Dance. She interviewed people who had known or studied Ram Gopal and also found visual material on the fascinating dancer.
The original found footage (below) features Ram Gopal’s voice laid over the visuals. The audio recording was made shortly before his death. Perhaps one of the few surviving strips of film that show Ram Gopal’s reinvention of Indian dance as a hybrid and eclectic form, this footage, according to Tom D’aguir, was the first time Ram Gopal saw himself in colour.
Ajay Sinha, professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College in the United States (and incidentally, Ayisha’s former college-mate), chanced upon Ram Gopal on the other side of the world. In the spring of 2014, Ajay attended a semester-long seminar on South Asian photography at Yale University.While searching Yale’s vast archives for an interesting topic to study, he discovered photographs of a beautiful Indian man posing coyly in different costumes. The homoerotic overtones in the portraits were striking. At first Ajay thought that these photographs, like the others in the South Asia collection, had been taken in India by American travellers. But he learned that they had in fact been taken in New York by the photographer Carl Van Vechten, who had been a patron of the Harlem Renaissance. And the subject, Ajay soon learned, was Ram Gopal, a dancer of whom he had never heard.
Because the Van Vechten photographs had not been taken in India, to Ajay they were not products of oriental tourism. Rather, they seemed to represent an encounter between two artists, a dancer and a photographer. Taken inside Van Vechten’s New York studio, these photographs, according Ajay, reveal themselves as a record of a specific moment of a transcultural encounter—a chance happening that, although framed by the artifice of a studio, points to a growing global network of creative individuals.
The photographs (two of which can be seen below) depict Ram Gopal in various modes of self-presentation. He seems to manipulate the camera, framing his body with his props and costumes to render himself both oriental and erotic. We can consider how Ram Gopal presents his body as an object to be looked at, to be coveted, and how he ascribes his body a cultural trademark that claims its otherness as an object of beauty, perhaps even desire.
It is difficult to locate Ram Gopal within the nation space as he was not part of the Uday Shankar or Kalakshetra movements. Moreover, he could not settle in a post-independence Bangalore and seems to have been a misfit in the culture of the new Indian nation. Van Vechten’s photographs of Ram Gopal, then, might represent his aesthetic divergence from the histories of both dance and the nation.
All of the photographs in the Van Vechten series were taken in three different photo sessions in April and May 1938. The photographs reveal many character changes for Ram Gopal. Despite the likely thrill of such elaborate photoshoots, however, Ram Gopal does not mention them in his autobiography; curiously, he mentions meeting Van Vechten only in passing.
“The photographic record and the narrative”, Ajay says, “they push at each other”. Van Vechten’s photographs become visual evidence for an occlusion in Ram Gopal’s written history.
Particularly interesting about the Van Vechten photographs is that they precede Ram Gopal’s move toward active archive building. Upon returning to India, Ram Gopal self-consciously tried to document his work, inviting photographers and filmmakers to record him. Tom D’aguir’s footage that Ayisha found is one such example.
When Ajay told Ayisha about the Van Vechten series, they found a new connection between their separate Ram Gopal projects. It would seem that the photographs Ayisha collected from various people in India show Ram Gopal building on his performative manipulation of photography that is evident in the Van Vechten photographs. He seems to have discovered a calculated mode of approaching the camera during the Van Vechten shoot and then used that same mode in photographs that were taken as part of his archive-building endeavours in India.
Ram Gopal’s attempt to create and control an archive of himself reflects a conscious effort to define himself as a historical figure within the history of Indian Dance. It is ironic that despite his self-eulogising, he is one of India’s less remembered modern dancers. This historical amnesia could have occurred for multiple reasons. Perhaps more traditional dancers were so dismissive of Ram Gopal’s hybrid aesthetic and his defiance of a technique-based notion of virtuosity that they did not include him in their own histories. Or perhaps, because Ram Gopal, unlike his contemporaries, never managed to establish pedagogy, he failed to institutionalise himself. His archive, then, does not expand on a history we already know. Rather, it begs us to piece one together from our ignorance. As Ajay says, “Ram Gopal’s archive points to the fissures, the gaps in history, through which he fell”.
More material on Ram Gopal is available at:
Ajay J. Sinha, Professor in the Department of Art and Art History and Film Studies Program at Mount Holyoke College, teaches courses on the history of Asian art and Indian films and photography. A recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Philosophical Society, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Clark Research Program, and Mount Holyoke College, he is the author of Imagining Architects: Creativity in Indian Temple Architecture (Newark, University of Delaware Press and London, Associated University Presses, 2000) and an edited volume with Raminder Kaur titled, Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (New Delhi and London, Sage Publications, 2005).
Ayisha Abraham is an experimental visual artist based in Bangalore and has for many years worked with amateur film footage. She has had several solo exhibitions in New York and India, and has exhibited in numerous group shows around the world. She is a member of the Bangalore-based artists collective BAR1 and has worked as a visual arts consultant at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore since 1997.
‘Archive’ comes from the Greek ‘arche’, which is the ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’. We often think of archives as public records, rooms filled with stuff that is dusty and deteriorating. But if we think of archive as its etymology, we are offered a wider definition—a beginning could be anywhere.
Ligament’s December 2016 issue sifts through multiple archives, multiple beginnings for different dancers and dances—in the body, in the museum, in the home, in memory. And by unravelling these far flung repositories, the issues asks whether dance can ever have a singular archive, if it always has multiple beginnings.
Writer and dancer Tishani Doshi speaks about her body as an archive with Sammitha Sreevathsa
An artist and an art historian chance upon a forgotten dancer
A Glimpse of Alice Boner’s Archive
Historian Rachel Mattson makes archive of Ragini Devi’s white American body
Mumbai-based dancer Avantika Bahl reflects on her documenting process as part of “From somewhere in the middle”
Scholar Asim Siddiqui questions current approaches to archiving live dance
To pick up and run with a magazine that has had another life is never easy. There are those conflicting desires to find close continuity and to just scrap it all and start anew. Ligament 2016-17 reemerges from a half-way point. We want to build on the investigations and insights of the magazine’s past contributors and also find ways to say what they perhaps had wanted to say but could not, or forgot to, in that moment.
Ligament was founded to facilitate the articulation of an evolving language that encompasses the impulses of contemporary dance. The idea of “contemporary” is inherently bound to time, to a sense of history, rather multiple histories unfolding. In its 2016-17 iteration, we hope that Ligament can grapple with the idea of how dance might hold a place in-step with the patterns of active and forming histories, rather than remaining a canonised and pondered response to a bygone world. We’d like to embrace the immediacy of “contemporary”, and invite contributions from dancers, choreographers, arts practitioners, scholars, audience members, readers. In this way, we hope to reach for the intimacies, resistances, and fragilities that permeate the developing field of South Asian contemporary dance.
Articulating a medium as visceral, visual, and ephemeral as dance requires making connections to methods of thought and critique that lie outside evaluative language. So for Ligament 2016-17 we welcome, of course, the critical essay, but also audio, photographs, ekphrastic poems, interviews, and hybrid media of various kinds that might speak to us about dance, carefully and proximately. Like the anatomical connective tissue for which it is named, Ligament, we hope, can help us locate dance in tandem with the many bodies that produce and encapsulate it.
To those who find themselves here for the first time, welcome. And those whom we have met before, we are glad you are back.
—Poorna Swami, Editor
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