The Natyarangam award could not have gone to a more worthy artist. For decades during the unforgettable Rukmini Devi era, Balagopalan was one of the star performers at the annual Kalakshetra art festival. From his teen years to age sixty, when he retired, he remained the enthusiastic, completely devoted dancer, springing with the sprightly vigour that made him an early favourite of the grande dame of that pathbreaking institution.
Looking at the septuagenarian today, his back straight, and his expressive face still bright with the intensity of devotion to his art, the mind travels back to a time when he electrified the Kalakshetra stage with his dynamic presence.
One particular episode will always remain in the memories of those who watched a poignant scene unfold before them—for once the drama was as much on stage as off it.
It is a dramatic moment in the Ramayana. A forlorn Sita is sitting under a tree and bemoaning her fate when a sprightly Hanuman jumps down from a tree and surprises her into open-mouthed wonder.
Even as the audience waits with bated breath, for it knows what power and artistry the dancer playing the monkey-god is capable of, the curtains have to be brought down hurriedly, as he has evidently twisted his ankle rather nastily.
It is, indeed, a bad injury and the foot swells like a balloon. A doctor in the audience happens to have just the right medical supplies in hand, and soon Balagopalan is administered an injection that numbs the injured area, and he is able to resume dancing as if nothing has happened.
What followed this little drama two decades ago was a memorable performance by the veteran dancer-teacher.
Playing Hanuman was a matter of devotion and surrender. Balagopalan simply left the matter in the hands of that indefatigable soldier. He believes that Lord Anjaneya's benediction saw him through not only that evening, but his whole life.
"Every year during the art festival, I would lead the most ascetic life, eating sparsely, doing puja and generally denying myself the creature comforts. That particular year, I had been a bit lax and I'm convinced that was the reason why I met with that accident," Balan Anna, as he is known to everyone in Kalakshetra, said.
“My fortunes changed dramatically when I started playing Hanuman,” he acknowledges. “It was no doubt Anjaneya’s grace that led to so many people generously helping me with my retirement and plans to start my own dance school.”
To those who have seen the Kalakshetra ‘Ramayana', Balagopalan is synonymous with Anjaneya. “I don't know how Athai saw a giant in me,” the diminutive Balagopal says recalling the inspired decision to first cast him as Hanuman, “but each time I took the viswarupam, I found a current coursing through my whole being. I didn't see my fellow artist, I saw Lord Rama. When I conveyed Rama's message to the imprisoned Sita, my frenzy of rage and grief was no drama, but reality.”
Balan Anna is more than a brilliant impersonator of Hanuman. His Lakshmana in the early years to Dhananjayan's Rama is still talked about in awed whispers. His Bharata to Janardhanan's Rama is equally famous. His interpretation of the devout younger brother in "Paduka Pattabhishekam" has never been bettered on stage or screen. (Balan is still hankering after a photograph hanging in Janardhanan’s house—of Rama and Bharata hugging each other. “What expressions we have on our faces! What filial love!” he marvels).
Comedy, villainy, pathos, bhakti—nothing escaped his attention, as his brilliant performances as Ravana, or in a comic role in "Sakuntalam" or as Kannappar in "Kannappar Kuravanji", testify. And what role has Balagopalan not played to perfection? His portrayal of Krishna in "Rukmini Kalyanam" would make you forget his short stature and even push back the years and accept him totally as the youthful, mischievous cowherd of Brindavan. He was equally convincing as the wily Sakuni in "Mahabharata". For not only was he adept at the footwork necessary for Bharatanatyam and honed by his Kathakali training, but he was also acclaimed for his mobile and appropriate facial expressions.
The result of rigorous training as a student of Kalakshetra where he arrived in 1953 as a 13-year old, these attributes make him the most versatile actor among dancers. An early star cast had Kunhiraman as Viswamitra, Chandu Panikkar as Vasishta, Dhananjayan as Rama and Balagopalan as Lakshmana, and the honest self-critic that he is, Balagopalan admits his inability to equal Kunhiraman’s standout Viswamitra in later years.
Dhananjayan and Balagopalan were inseparable friends as kids. They enjoyed the good times together and mourned the so-called bad times—when slights real or imagined at the hands of their peers and elders had them embrace each others in tears. Balan regrets his lack of attention to studies, though he recalls his football exploits at school with pride.
Balagopalan remembers his former colleagues with great affection and admiration. “What a brilliant dancer Janardhanan was. Can there ever be another Krishnaveni? None of us thought of lead or side roles. We just did what Athai wanted, though there was always healthy competition between us.”
His mother died in Kerala while young Balan was away performing dance dramas in New Delhi. He recalls emotionally, “Rukmini Devi died with her head on my lap. She said she must have been my child in a previous birth, or I hers, for me to nurse her so devotedly now.”
Balagopalan retired from Kalakshetra at 60, ten years ago. In Rukmini Devi's time, his career might have just begun, for that indefatigable collector of great masters made sure Kalakshetra benefited from the wisdom and experience of the best music and dance composers and teachers.
Armed with his monthly pension of Rs. 265 and a fund of goodwill from many former students, fans and patrons of Kalakshetra, Balagopal quietly embarked on his new life as teacher at his home, where students come to him for lessons.
Heart disease and surgery have made Balagopalan wistful for the good old days when he could crouch like a tiger, spring like a lion. “Nowadays, I become breathless even while demonstrating to my students”, now reduced to twenty-odd from about sixty in healthier days. He needs daughter-dancer Prithvija’s help to conduct his classes, but his spirit is undaunted as can be seen from his superb expressiveness in abhinaya. The lion in winter has much to offer still—for those willing to benefit from his accumulated wisdom, the product of his unparalleled experience.