Friday Review

The discoverer unveiled

Kapila Vatsyayan Photo S. Subramanium.   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

Kapila Vatsyayan, the grand matriarch of cultural research, has for decades been an icon for students of the arts and for aesthetes in general. Among India’s earliest arts administrators, hers is a rare personality — unique even today — that combines theoretical knowledge with practical experience, artistic priorities with administrative acumen. If today an interdisciplinary and multicultural approach to the arts is accepted as vital for an understanding of Asian culture, it was not necessarily so in the days when she was a student, and it was Kapila Vatsyayan’s holistic vision and researcher’s tirelessness that opened the doors of understanding for many after her.

Most know her better from one side or the other of her multifaceted persona. Some know her as a pivotal figure in India’s cultural diplomacy. She has held several posts in the Government of India, in leading institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and occupied positions of significance in India’s representations to UNESCO. Besides, she continues to be closely associated with the India International Centre. Research scholars know her for her numerous authoritative books that have guided the research of generations of aspirants. Indian classical dancers are aware that she is not only a dance scholar and art historian, but also was also highly trained in Kathak and Manipuri in her youth, besides accumulating a formidable amount of knowledge of Bharatanatyam and Odissi among other dance forms.

Her former colleagues in government would remember her as one in whom the adventurous artist regularly surfaced to cut through the red tape. Artists, on the other hand, tremble before her theoretical background, and researchers fear to be demolished by her vaster perspective on the arts not only of India but of the world. Who then would dare to investigate Kapila Vatsyayan the person — the young girl who travelled to the U.S. for a degree in the 1940s, the inspired daughter and granddaughter of nation builders and freedom fighters, the driven researcher, the North Indian lass trying to decipher Bharatanatyam in a South Indian village?

Surely she too was once a young Indian in a new India, with her moments of uncertainty and fear, grief and pondering, curiosity and carefree laughter, and yes, maybe gaffes borne of inexperience? The story might have been tempting for many, but it was only Jyoti Sabharwal, founder publisher of Stellar and former journalist, who took the plunge and has come out with a biography of the multifaceted veteran.

In “Afloat a lotus leaf: Kapila Vatsyayan — A Cognitive Biography” (Stellar), the author has been able to extricate from a well guarded privacy the details of an invaluable story of lifelong learning.

“I was never in awe of her,” states Sabharwal. However, she admits, “The most challenging thing was getting her assent.” Belonging to a tradition of stalwarts who saw their seminal work as a service to their fellow human beings, the veteran scholar was not keen to be written about. “She wouldn’t give her consent and I never gave up. Eventually she relented,” says Sabharwal.

“I’ve been a celebrity interviewer for 32 years. I had a fetish for getting exclusives,” she smiles.

Getting permission was not the only challenge though. The book is partly interview-based and took some four years to complete, but it required a lot of research on the part of the writer too. “I had to educate and re-educate myself. I had to get every date right.”

In the past she has authored biographies of people like Kiran Bedi, Natwar Singh, Amitabh Bachchan and Kapil Dev. Having worked on life stories from a star studded list for publishers Sterling and Macmillan, she started out on her own with Stellar in 2004.

“I’ve released more than 42 titles in these 20 years of publishing,” she figures. Her own outfit has rolled out biographies of personalities as varied as Vyjayantimala Bali, Vasant Sathe, Mrinal Sen, Amrish Puri and Begum Akhtar.

But this time it was an unwilling celebrity whose fascinating trajectory she has made available to a generation that knows of libraries as a computer software term and that does much of its research on the internet. As we discover Kapila Vatsyayan’s roots in a Punjabi family of fierce integrity and courage and observe her absorb learning from all quarters and experiences, pleasant and unpleasant; as we see her travel across India to view ancient monuments and get acquainted with rituals and rites, we get an idea of the layers that have been placed upon this intricate canvas. We can see how the metaphors and analogies she uses to describe herself as well as other subjects have formed.

The author quotes her most aptly in her publisher’s note: “Perhaps, I am a rolling stone that has gathered much moss. Indeed, so much moss that there is no stone left; only layers and layers of this rich and vast moss of the knowledge and experience of the country of my birth, and those of other countries from whom I have imbibed and received….”

As for Sabharwal, the biographer is set for another ‘exclusive’. The subject’s name she is not ready to reveal yet, but she says it will be “another defining book” about a woman “who joined All India Radio in 1948 as a casual announcer and conducted children’s programmes, and retired in 1995 as Controller of Programmes in Doordarshan.”

The upcoming book, then, will be “a look at the two institutions through the prism of her life.”

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 2:58:54 AM |

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