Ram Gopal: “Be that God!”
In the late 1930s, a mixed-race, bisexual dancer, Ram Gopal, was hailed as “the Nijinsky of India”. According to one Parisian critic, Ram, “beautiful, young, serious… worthy of the gods”, made other dancers seem like mere “acrobats”. Neither his race (his father was Indian, his beloved mother, Burmese), nor relationships with men quelled the adulation of audiences in New York, Paris and London. Glissading between sandstone and bronze deities, Ram inaugurated the Indian rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He rebirthed forms long stigmatised by temple dancers working as prostitutes, retelling the Hindu myths in a fusion of Kathakali, Kathak, Bharat Natyam and folk. He persuaded prima ballerina assoluta, Alice Markova, to play Radha to his Krishna. Immaculately trained, belonging to no single institution, this almost forgotten renaissance artist deserves a renaissance of his own.
At about 10, Ram flung himself after drums celebrating a harvest puja in a small temple: “I tore my coat off and went into… a possession… my solar plexus going round like a fan and it spreading to the feet and hands. I think in dancing you have to get possessed; so hypnotized that your possession then communicates itself to those who watch you.”
When, in 1936, Ram first toured the East, supporting the famous Russian dancer La Meri, audiences were so besotted with him, the diva asked Ram to leave. Performing in London, he was applauded by Queen Mary. He appeared in a Hollywood film with Gregory Peck and choreographed a film starring Liz Taylor. At its height, Ram Gopal’s company toured with an orchestra of over 25 members. His rehearsals would bring his dancers to tears (at which point, he’d cuddle them). He was modern, traditional and unconventional all at once, playing host, at his colonial home in India, to a shifting commune of dancers, artists and bohemian army officers who wanted ‘out’ of the British system. He toured with talented women, including the Javanese dancer Retna Mohini, who later married Henri Cartier-Bresson. Finally, he attracted the attention of his hero Nijinsky. Generally bored by the theatre, Nijinksy, after a long period of mental illness, saw Ram dance, in London. “You see,” Nijinksy is said to have commented to his wife, “this Indian dances with his face and his hands, which is what I tried to do…”
As Garuda, the Eagle of Vishnu
In America, patrons and showbiz types treated Ram as an exotic cutie, “gold(en), humble and innocent” – Ram tolerated the stereotype, “as long as they didn’t say anything else”.
If he was patronised – “Can you speak English?” – he would retort, “Yes, I can, can you?” 2.5 million Indians had fought for Britain in WWII, yet in the country of his conquerors, Ram encountered sneers about his ‘tan’. He told how, “In hotels, the great hotels, there was a slight ‘Oh, we’ve got one of THEM coming in’. I found a way to cope because I have a quick(ly) triggered reaction. But when I danced, that possession came into me and once you bewitch yourself you can bewitch everyone else. Once they saw me dance, their opinion changed of me.”
Ram’s Burmese mother encouraged his sensibility: “My mother never said no and never said don’t… you have to just be.”
Freedom of ‘being’ may explain Ram’s sexual expansiveness. Studying the dance-drama style of Kathakali with monastic rigour, he would accompany his Guru to the village temple, in Kerala. Praying, chanting, offering flowers, he absorbed his Guru’s injunction: “Don’t just dance as a God; be that God.” His Guru woke Ram at 2 am to train every muscle, from eyes to fingertips. “How refreshed and strong I felt at the end of these practices!” Ram recalled in his autobiography, “How my eyes gleamed, like two lights burning from within.. filled with fire. When I caught a glimpse of them in a mirror they seemed to belong to those Gods my great teacher talked about always. It was with a start that I realized they belonged in my own face!”
Being a God, according to the Hindu philosophies of The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads, which Ram read with his Guru, releases the student from social limits, while demanding an inward sense of vocation. Homosexuality remains illegal in India – this is due for another parliamentary battle in 2018 – yet, unlike his Hollywood peers, Ram’s commune of aesthetes, sadists and homosexuals was hardly secretive. In his work, he blended what he called “virility” with lightness, often seen as a feminine quality. He commended his partner Markova as, “beautifully slim as a beam of moonlight. (I’d) never seen a dancer as light as she … she was pure air.”
Edward Sparkes, a British officer who lived in Ram’s commune, reports, “I have seen Ram make a great leap that would have taken him to the centre of a stage, with hardly a sound.” Sparkes also reports on Ram’s sexuality. “Oh! Edward!” Sparkes recalls Ram as saying, “If you have never loved a man you would never know. With a woman you express yourself into her. With a man you go free. You go free, Edward!” In heterosexual love, it seems, Ram was an auteur playing a scene, in which he did not reveal or surrender himself. On stage, he let women shine: in a programme from his 1939 Gala performance at the 2400-seater Salle Playel in Paris, 6 out of 13 numbers go to his female co-stars. A further two are duets with Ram. He was fond of women, living in London, in Chelsea, with his wife Edith, until her death.
Determined to win Markova for a dance partner, he garlanded her with a necklace of marigolds, a gesture reserved for goddesses, gurus and brides. When they danced as Radha and Krishna, she recalled, “the first day of the performance, I walked in (to my dressing room) and it was heaven. Ram had lit incense… so I was instantly transported.” Ram idolised Markova’s artistic lineage. A friend to Stravinsky, Matisse and Chanel, she was, like Ram, the modern ledge of a classical foundation. But, most importantly for Ram, she’d been trained by Diaghilev. “She had the Diaghilev touch,” Ram said, years later. “Without Diaghilev there would be no ballet.” Later, living in Venice, he regularly hired a gondola to lay flowers on the tomb of Diaghilev; an echo of those childhood temple visits with his own guru.
As work and funds faltered, Ram’s final days passed in drab Norbury, supported by French patrons and visited by a few devotees in his nursing home. In London’s National Portrait Gallery, Markova’s bust now stands next to his portrait – some compensation for his lost stature. Markova called Ram a “fabulous creature and wonderful artist”. Their reunion in the Gallery is a gesture of the highest rank, deserved but never quite accorded to this queer ‘pandit’, who communed with unseen gods.
By Soma Ghosh