In dialogue with the doyenne Kapila Vastyayan

VISIONARY SCHOLAR Kapila Vatsyayan   | Photo Credit: Meeta Ahlawat

The Indian classical dance, a constituent of a fast-changing socio-economic environment, is one where professionals struggle to reinvent themselves to survive. However, in the efforts to do so, questions arise that how does one view innovations, and when do reinventions cross the line where they may threaten to impinge upon the inherent identity of the dance tradition- its aesthetics, transmission systems, and performance format?

The reality today is that parameters of patronage for dance in India is witnessing the shift from largely government to private sphere, significant presence of the diaspora asserting identities through dance has morphed in intriguing configurations of the styles, colossal growth of technology has impacted aesthetics, presentations, transmission techniques, audience outreach, creation of individual brands and organisation of dance networks.

Against such a range of rapid changes, the work, ideas, and thoughts of Dr. Kapila Vastyayan provide a measure to assess frameworks of dance traditions. Dr. Vatsyayan, has a background of a performer, an academician, institution creator and a cultural administrator where she was able to engineer significant policies that impacted all aspects of Indian dance. Today, she is a living record on Indian dance from the 1930-40s which was the watershed decade of the creation of dance institutions. She represents canons of past-present and stands witness to neoclassical paradigms of dance.

This critique is based on a journey with her for more than four decades. One of the most picturesque scenes remembered is during a conference/exhibition titled ‘Mind Man and Mask’, where Kapilaji jumped onto the carpet of the centre of the round table and performed a dancing deer. This was in contrast to the manner she would impart knowledge, her manner as quixotic as an ascetic, for instance, often she begins a sentence on an important topic and then her fast-moving mind weaving a weft and warp interconnecting a large body of knowledge systems inevitably leaves her silent. The person listening to her is required to be tuned to her radio station so as to complete the thought. It is similar to the technique of upaj or impromptu creation in the Indian performing arts when an evolved guru imparts the basic footnote of a composition and then leaves the learner to venture into the unknown path to create and innovate.

Her journey in dance

Kapila ji’s layered learning of traditions of dance started with oriental dancing, a category of dance, which like the modern painting movement in 19th Century, was nurtured in the Shantiniketan, patronised by Rabindranath Tagore, amalgamating Manipuri, Kathakali, Jari, Garbha, Ceylonese and Indonesian dances. She learned Kathak from Pt. Achhan Maharaj (father of Pt. Birju Maharaj), Manipuri from Guru Amobi Singh, Mahabir Singh, Odissi from Guru Surendranath Jena, Bharatanatyam from Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and later from Rukmini Devi's disciple Lalitha.

Her performances included participating in the first Dance Festival (1945) organised by Nirmala Joshi (Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi) in the Feroz Shah Kotla Grounds, on dance dramas – Kalidas’ “Kumar Sambhav” and “Braj Leela” choreographed by Pt. Achhan Maharaj and she performed in the Regal Cinema (Delhi) where the most common performances were by Prithvi Theatres.

Kapila Vatsayan at the Parliament

Kapila Vatsayan at the Parliament   | Photo Credit: V. V. Krishnan

Expanding her practical and theoretical knowledge base, she engaged with Western modern dance through the Laban and Hanya Holm tools of movement analytical systems and on the international setting Vatsyayan created a distinct place for herself as a dance scholar by participating in and awarded by the Congress on Research on Dance (CORD) and World Dance Alliance conferences.

In her view, the basic difference between Indian dance and the Western dance lies in the manner how each tradition deals with the earth and in the manner, the performers employ the body and feet weight in the interface with the earth. The Indian tradition is all about being in dialogue with the earth, represented in a wide range of seminal foot movements, for example, she says, “In Manipuri and Odissi there is the toe-heel, and such is the dictate of gentleness in Manipuri that my guru maestro Amobi Singh said Dharti ko aaghaat deeyon na – don’t hurt the earth....”

Kapila Vatsayan with The Dalai Lama

Kapila Vatsayan with The Dalai Lama   | Photo Credit: AP

The West, on the other hand, aspires to be free from the earth but never does get free. Her insights decode the varied and distinct grammar and intrinsic language that defines each Indian dance tradition which is made of a distinctive fusion of feet and body movements, diverse geometrical body stances, complex rhythmic patterns that illustrate mathematical ingenuity. “In Bharatanatyam, there is the overwhelming presence of triangle formations, in Kathakali dominance of the square and the rectangle, and Manipuri is marked by flow where vertical line of the body is never broken and the body curves in the figure of 8.”

Kapila Vatsyayan watching a dance performance through opera glasses

Kapila Vatsyayan watching a dance performance through opera glasses   | Photo Credit: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Secondly, each dance tradition has trademark central body position from where emerge and align journey of movements; each tradition has distinct tenets when performed project an explicit patterned internal map of rhythm and sound within which are created dynamic painted and sculptured forms using the human body.

Innovations or distortions

“To be innovative is imperative for traditions to renew, but inventiveness needs to happen within the framework of basic principles defining each dance,” she maintains. “An outstanding example of successful innovation among non-traditional performers is Protima Bedi who was able to open and create body extensions without distorting the fundamental positions of the chowk and the tribhang in Odissi.”

Nonetheless, presently, the pressure to sustain programmes, markets and to have pre-eminent visibility has witnessed compromising fundamentals of dance traditions. The aspiration to create performances as a phenomenon of scintillating spectacles like Power Yoga is characterised by well-practised tailored robotic presentations with little space for upaj; displays which are defined by athletic-acrobatic movement dynamics, padded with the sophisticated technological production (sound/light/sets), and superimposition of esoteric themes.

Kapila Vatsyayan with Pandit Birju Maharaj

Kapila Vatsyayan with Pandit Birju Maharaj   | Photo Credit: PTI

For example, one can apply Vatsyayan’s thoughts to the reduction of Kathak to the visual domination of chakkars and robotic fixed dance. “Kathak with its erect body, creates a two-dimensional effect. The signature dynamics is about the contrasting principle of stillness-movement-stillness. Chakkars function to represent circular movement, the dominance of pirouettes present only circular graphics. Distortion happens on two levels, one – there is reduction of geometrical patterns in different lined directions but more importantly, the blur produced by the body in chakkars removes the quotient of Stillness. Lastly, both in abhinaya and layakaari so seminal to kathak has to have openness in the performance. If this is all fixed to the T then there is no Kathak dance? ”

Correspondingly, is the case with Bharatanatyam, where the Ardhamandali as the central anchoring position is from where patterns evolve creating impressions of geometry of triangles and movement conceived is in relation to the ground and vertical median, Dr Vatsyayan says, “If the body performed is reducing the ardhamandali to be replaced by frequent use of a straight body, or if there is introduction of flying, jumps, and athletics which will result in constantly doing away with the axis position, then the dance is gone and the same is true of Odissi.”

Branding-technology and transmission

Presently, innovations are happening to repackage styles of Indian classical dance and one way is the re-creation of the dance traditions with snazzy copyright names such as Bharatanatyam fusion – Bfusion, Sufi Kathak, Amazia Odissi. These function to generate a wow factor that serves to capture markets and bulldoze critical frameworks.

Secondly, competitive forces and technology have adversely affected transmission systems.

On hearing about these occurrences, the yogini says, “Deviations such as these are challenging, dancers need to ask, will these choices made by them in terms of transmissions and presentations result in renewal so as to maintain the principle of chira nutan, chira puratan (where the old becomes constantly new and the new is in the process of becoming constantly old) without destroying the seminal framework or these choices if honestly reviewed will actually endanger the Indian dance traditions, and what role are they playing in this distortion?”

Kapila Vatsyayan seeking blessings of Guru Amobi Singh

Kapila Vatsyayan seeking blessings of Guru Amobi Singh   | Photo Credit: Sangeet Natak Akademi

I sat in front of her, and thought, there has to be a midway, where the sacred core of these traditions the basic essence of the contradiction of movement-stillness, of creation-dissolution is retained, where the flight of talent experiments but within frames and efforts that result to augment not to detract the saundariya (sublime beauty) so cardinally innate to each style of the Indian classical dance.


Simple and profound

Turning 90 later this year, Dr. Vatsyayan’s compounded academic spectrum has manifested itself in creative expressions of complex, multi-layered writings, exhibitions, visualisation and strategies on cultural institutions and cultural management. She asserts that the idea of the cultural landscape needs to perceived, evaluated and approached holistically, where the tangible is conjoined with intangible, arts with science, folk with classical. While the vast range of her works traverse a variety of fields of creative expressions, she ponders on the applicability of her practical and theoretical knowledge in the nuances of state administration and policies. It is evident in several of her writings such as her book Plural Cultures and Monolithic Structures- Comprehending India, a compilation of essays that among other things uses metaphors that not only bring out the essence of Indian thought but can be applied to contribute to the aspiration of a nation-state.

The expanse of her studies, engagement spans an in-depth knowledge of Asia and other civilizations. One of the lesser-known facts remains her role in the creation of institutions like the Indira Gandhi Centre for The Arts, Central University of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Centre for Cultural Resource and Training among several others.

However, in her mapped mind, dance assumes a central position like an axis-mundi whose energy is able to create a mandala from where emanates a cosmic whole – a terrain that is an organic multimedia.

There has always been a Gandhian path to her actions, lined by compassion and respect for the creative and knowledge communities from the top to the grassroots, a sharp sense of humour but most of all there is an element of enjoyment of rasa which was evident when one saw her cook the most delicious food, hearing on a radio some extremely refined western classical music to mystics like Kabir and enjoying her supper with salt and green chillies.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2020 1:59:05 PM |

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