Kapila Vatsyayan: An unbounded bounded person

“A breath of fresh air, clear, incisive and invigorating.” This is what Rai Krishnadasa, Honorary Director of Bharat Kala Bhavan at Benares, wrote in his foreword to Kapila Vatsyayan’s 1968 book Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts.

The magnum opus was the first comprehensive study by an Indian scholar of the synergies between classical dance, literature, and sculpture. A path-breaking work, it has since guided all research scholars with its thorough methodology, its study of the Natyashastra, of archeology and architecture, and its effortless bridging of the arts, of thought and imagination.

This Wednesday, the author of this magnificent compendium passed away peacefully at the age of 91 in her New Delhi home.

Her death marks the end of an incomparable saga of research that placed Kapila firmly in the league of renowned art scholars such as Stella Kramrisch, Alice Boner, Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy and Dr. V. Raghavan.

Armed with an MA in English from the University of Delhi, an MA in Education from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D from Banaras Hindu University, Kapila effortlessly combined theoretical knowledge with extensive practice. Kapila had spent her formative years in Shantiniketan, immersing herself in literature, painting, music and dance. Later a disciple of art scholar Pandit Vasudev Sharan Agrawal, she also studied Kathak from the legendary Achhan Maharaj, Manipuri from Guru Amubi Singh, and Bharatanatyam from Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. Having thus deeply experienced the practice of aesthetics or rasa, she was able to imbue her scholarship with it, going beyond the usual understanding of rasa as mood and evocation to establishing it as a state of being.

Prominent among the dozens of volumes of scholarship she produced are Traditions of Indian Folk Dance (1976), The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts (1983), and Bharata: The Natya Sastra (1996).

Kapila’s fastidious nature, sharp intellect and uncompromising attitude made her an able administrator and institution builder. She worked closely with Kamaladevi Chattopadhayay, Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, Maulana Azad and Dr. Radhakrishnan, becoming the administration’s nodal centre for cultural affairs.

She established the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, conceptualised the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and was Vice-President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. She was president of India International Centre and chairperson of Asiatic International Research Division. As additional secretary in the Department of Education, she was part of the process of establishing the three Akademis: Sangeet Natak, Lalilt Kala and Sahitya Akademi. She was also nominated twice to the Rajya Sabha.

At IGNCA, she held several seminal exhibitions, prominent among them Kham, Akara and Kaal (1986 to 1991), which mapped time and space across civilizations and art forms. And the innumerable publication programmes and video interviews she spearheaded for IGNCA is a great legacy, archiving traditional, philosophical, spiritual and speculative thoughts around the arts.

Kapila guided me as a young critic as she did every scholar who approached her, and I remember her enthusiastic support when I curated Uday Shankar’s centenary exhibition at IGNCA. Not just me, but the entire fraternity was confident of receiving her guidance on any project.

Honoured with the Padma Shri, the Padma Vibhushan, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and several other national and international awards, her biography, Afloat a Lotus Leaf, was written by Jyoti Sabharwal.

If one had to pick a single thread of her work, it would be her interdisciplinary approach to the arts. To arrive at her aesthetic theories of dance she applied the study of literature, sculpture, painting, music and theatre. Her profound interest in classical dances led her to a deep study of folk, rural and tribal dances.

She saw the classical, the folk, and the contemporary as being without dichotomies and as equally valid manifestations of creativity and imagination. This made her uniquely able to stride the classical and modern worlds with equal confidence. She once said in an interview: “I did not go to modern dance from modern dance, but from tradition.”

She studied the physicality of dance, distinguishing between the Western tradition of keen awareness of the body and the Asian tradition of transcending the body; between Western dance’s aspiration to fly above the earth to Asian dance’s deeply-grounded embrace of the earth. And she did so without losing sight of their synergies. As she said in an interview, “I got the essence of each of these traditions without being bound by the conventions of these traditions. I became an unbounded bounded person.”

With a lifetime spent researching, exploring and re-interpreting the remarkable complexities of Indian culture, Kapila’s strength lay in being able to make this study futuristic, realising the present while protecting it from descending into a mere obsession with the past.

In her passing, the world of dance and culture sees the end of an era of catholic scholarship that was deeply excited about and invested in Indian culture while still being to fly above it all.

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 8:38:55 PM |

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