Pandit Ram Gopal : 3 things to know about India’s first Dance Superstar

With the passage of time, few remember the charismatic dancer and choreographer Pandit Ram Gopal. Credited with putting Indian dance on the global map, today his story is lost between archives across UK, US, Europe and India. Here are 3 things to know about India’s dance superstar of the 20th century:

1. Ram Gopal was born to dance – but his parents wouldn’t accept it!

Bissano Ram Gopal was born in Bangalore to a Rajput father and Burmese mother. From an early age, he took to dance quite naturally – he was fascinated by the music at a Kathak performance held in the local town hall and inspired by the palace dancers at the Mysore Dussehra celebrations. He earned the patronage of the Mysore royalty and his first public performance was at a party hosted by the Yuvraj of Mysore at the Lalita Mahal – for 1000 guests that included the then British Viceroy. By the age of 19, Ram Gopal was already a known name among the Mysore elite – his parents however, and especially his father disapproved of his choice of a career in dance.
In the 1930’s, dance was looked upon as a “disreputable” profession. Devadasis – the skilled temple dancers, fell victim to colonial perspectives and their lack of cultural understanding which deemed the Devadasis no better than prostitutes. Ram Gopal’s father, a successful lawyer, had wanted his son to study law. When asked by his father why he wanted to dance, here’s what Ram Gopal said :

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

The Mysore royal family helped convince Ram Gopal’s father, and Gopal went on to learn different forms of dance – Bharatanatyam (from the legendary Nattuvanar Meenakshisundaram Pillai), Kathakali (from Guru Kunchu Kurup of Kerala), Kathak (Guru Sohan Lal of the Jaipur Gharana, who was settled in Bangalore) and even Manipuri Dance!

ram gopal india dance
Ram Gopal performing as Lord Shiva in ‘Dance of the Setting sun’

Ram Gopal could dance meditatively as Lord Shiva, embody Krishna’s playfulness and flutter like a swan. With his growing success as a dancer, Ram Gopal’s parents eventually reconciled with his choice of career & decided to support him.

2. Ram Gopal built a successful dance company that took India to the world

His first international tour was as part of American choreographer La Meri’s troupe. Ram Gopal’s evident talent put him in the limelight, and he established his own company. They performed at local temples, and villages across South India, and across UK, America and Europe. In the backdrop of the Second World War, Ram Gopal envisioned a collaboration of Eastern and Western dance and ballet.

ram gopal india dance
Press Clipping from Ram Gopal’s first performance in UK

Ram Gopal’s troupe travelled for over 15 years enthralling audiences around the world. As a choreographer his best-known creations were Garuda: the Golden Eagle, Legend of the Taj Mahal, Dance of the Setting Sun and Dances of India. At it’s height, Ram Gopal’s company toured with over 25 people!

ram gopal india dance
Ram Gopal with his Indian Dancers and Musicians – programme for performance at Cambridge Theatre, Cambridge Circus, London. Date: 1951. Full Image

He was joined by dancers who are notable names today – Tara Chaudhry, Shevanti, Kumudini Lakhia, Mrinalini Sarabhai. Retna Mohini, a Javanese dancer (and wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson) was also part of his troupe.

Take a look at the Garuda Project [conservation of the Garuda costume, educational resources, and archival posters of Ram Gopal’s performances]

In 1960, Ram Gopal collaborated with British ballerina Alicia Markova to perform a duet based on Radha and Krishna. This special collaboration stands commemorated at the National Portrait Gallery where a bronze bust of the great ballerina stands next to a full-length portrait of Ram Gopal by his friend Feliks Topolski.

3. Ram Gopal was the subject of many paintings and books on dance – a superstar of the 20th century!

Ram Gopal’s hybrid dance style and modern choreography, along with his charismatic stage presence left his audiences stunned. His elaborate costumes and headgears captured public imagination and his performances won applause from across quarters including Queen Mary, and Polish dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (who Ram Gopal idolised). His “superstar” persona was captured by leading photographers of the day, books on Indian dance were never complete without his mention or a contribution from him.

In 1947, at the inauguration of the refurbished India-section of the V&A, he was invited to perform. Take a look at the video here:

Most web-articles or archives about Ram Gopal often overlook this painting by K.H Ara.

ram gopal india dance
Pandit Ram Gopal performing in a temple setting

On Dec 1 1939, a special performance by Ram Gopal was arranged by the Hindustani Social Club at the Vaudeville Theatre. This was no ordinary performance though; The Hindustani Social Club, supported by Mulk Raj Anand and other Indians recognized the need to mitigate the stress caused by the second World War amidst the working classes. The performance was attended by Indian sea-men, pedlars, and largely the disadvantaged community at a premiere cultural venue. This was a moment in time that traversed the boundaries of class; an intersection of the social, cultural and political for the Indian diaspora.

ram gopal india dance

Pandit Ram Gopal was a cosmopolitan who loved his Kerala massages as much as his lunches at the Polish Club in Kensington. He shared screen space with Gregory Peck and had a brief stint with Hollywood; he was honoured with an ‘Order of the British Empire’ and his presence is felt even today at two of UK’s leading museums. In India, the Sahitya Kala Akademi took an unusually long time to confer upon him a Fellowship and the title of ‘Ratna Sadasya’ (1990). Ram Gopal’s story might be lost in the pages of history (and pay-walled online archives), but surely, he remains to be an unforgettable figure!

Share your reaction!

Loading spinner
Explore More In