Kapila Vatsyayan: Polymath of the arts

Kapila Vatsyayan (1928-2020) was a scholar-practitioner of the arts, a cultural thinker and an institution builder.

Published : Sep 22, 2020 18:54 IST

Kapila Vatsyayan. A 2014 photograph.

Kapila Vatsyayan. A 2014 photograph.

Kapila Vatsyayan, the grand matriarch of culture studies and a preeminent practitioner of the arts, passed away on September 16 in New Delhi. She was 91.

Her life was a saga of a scholar-practitioner of the arts who became a legend in her lifetime. She was beyond categorisation as a scholar, dancer, linguist, author, ethnographer, educationist and art historian. She never worked in silos and was an inter-disciplinarian to the core. Her creativity as a performing artist and precision and insight as a scholar was moulded into her vision as a cultural thinker and institution builder.

Vatsyayan was an integral part of the discourse of building cultural institutions in India over the last 60 years a part of the cultural trinity, with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar. Some of the country’s top institutions which she was instrumental in establishing were: The Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath-Varanasi (1967); the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal (1977); the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, Delhi (1979); and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Delhi (1985).

Yet, Vatsyayan was pained that “there was a lack of coherence at the policy and programming level, which resulted in cultural heritage and crafts remaining outside the pale of institutions of higher learning”. She strongly felt that the challenge before India was to move beyond “unconsciously” continuing to replicate the legacy of the ‘Anglican-Orientalist’ mindset that separated the domains of education and culture. She wanted to establish some equity between those who were illiterate or semi-literate and socially and economically disempowered but highly artistically talented carriers of dexterous skills and techniques and those who were in the educational system with cognitive skills but were averse to the arts and craft traditions.

Though she was held in awe and respect by both Ministers and bureaucrats, there was also an undercurrent of hostility. Often, her strong-willed personality was equated with “autocratic style”. Kapila Vatsyayan knew how to get her way, sometimes even standing up to the likes of her mentor Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. As part of the dance revival movement in the early 1980s, Kapila wanted to organise a dance festival at Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, which is identified with Nataraja, the presiding deity of dance, on the same lines as the music festival held at Thiruvaiyaru, associated with Saint Tyagaraja, one of the trinity of Carnatic Music. The idea was to pay homage to the art through performance as in the music festival. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay furiously opposed the idea, declaring that it would amount to commercialising the temple shrine. Kapila pointed out to her mentor that she herself had introduced novelty and staged festivals to propagate art forms, emphasising “purity and authenticity in revival”. She told Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay the idea was to rejuvenate sanskaras , or rituals, which had become mere gestures devoid of meaning. Kapila defended her use of a modern format to achieve the same ends. Even the famous Bharatanatyam danseuse Rukmini Devi Arundale opposed the idea of the Chidambaram festival.

But what began in 1981 against much opposition has developed today into an annual five-day national festival presenting many styles of Indian classical dance and organised by the Natyanjali Trust, Chidambaram. Participation and response in the festival have acquired an international dimension and now feature more than 300 dancers and as many accompanying artistes.

Born on December 25, 1928, in Delhi, Kapila Vatsyayan, née Malik, grew up in a family committed to India’s freedom struggle. She did her undergraduation at Hindu College, Delhi. Then she did her M.A. in English from University of Delhi and a second M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and her Ph.D. from Banaras Hindu University under the art scholar Acharya Vasudeva Sharan Agrawala.

While she was teaching English literature at Delhi University’s Miranda House, she went on a learning spree to South India. She slept in wayside temples, dharamshala s and devasthanam s and discovered karana s, gopuram s and vimanas, overcoming her inhibitions borne by her Arya Samaj upbringing about temples and idol worship.

Having spent her formative years in Santiniketan, she sought and learnt Indian classical dance from the masters of her time: Kathak from Acchan Maharaj (father of Birju Maharaj), Manipuri from Amobi Singh, Bharatanatyam from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Odissi from Surendranath Jena.

In October 1954, she joined the Ministry of Education as an Assistant Educational Adviser (Under Secretary) after being selected by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), and rose to be the Secretary of the arts. In 1956, she married Hindi litterateur Sachchidananda Vatsyayan “Agyeya” but they separated early.

She was a prolific author and wrote more than 15 books, including classics like The Square and the Circle of the Indian Arts (1983), Bharata: The Natyasastra (1996) and six volumes on the Gita Govinda .

When she was asked by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to set up the IGNCA as a national memorial to his mother, she sought an appointment with him to know what exactly he had in mind. Rajiv Gandhi is reported to have told Kapila: “Whatever you think. You knew mother and her concerns in the field of the arts. You set up my grandfather’s museum, you will have to do this too.” It was a carte blanche and she had to do it all from scratch.

At IGNCA, she successfully led the shift from an annual grants system to corpus funding to encourage institutional self-reliance, accountability and autonomy. But the political weathercock kept heaping humiliation on her intermittently. In 1985, Kapila was made Member-Secretary of IGNCA and in 1993, when she turned 65, she was made its Academic Director. In 2000, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government removed her from the post of Academic Director. In 2005, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was formed, she returned as the Chairperson of the IGNCA. In June 2007, she was replaced by the diplomat Chinmaya Gharekhan as Chairperson, but she continued as Trustee. In May 2014, when the NDA returned to power, Kapila Vatsyayan was a prime target and she was soon removed from the trusteeship of the IGNCA. In April 2017, it was reported that 6,000 books donated by her to the IGNCA were removed from the galleries and dumped in a godown.

Kapila Vatsyayan represented India on the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO’s) Executive Board. She became a fellow both of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1970) and the Lalit Kala Akademi (1995) and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan (2011).

For Kapila Vatsyayan, the India International Centre (IIC) became her karmbhoomi after she became a Life Trustee of the institution in 1988. One day, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay called Kapila Vatsyayan and told her: “When I go away and these trustees ask you to become a Life Trustee of IIC, please don’t say no. If you do, I'll scream wherever I am.” That was how Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay sought and got commitment from her protégé to serve the IIC.

She became the President of the IIC from 1997 to 2001. From 2003 onwards she was the Chairperson of the IIC Asia Project, rechristened in 2016 as the International Research Division. Conferences, seminars and exhibitions, tirelessly organised by her, abounded all those years. N.H. Ramachandran assisted her meticulously and loyally throughout her IIC innings.

Under her leadership, the IIC Asia Project produced seminal work, ranging from Speaking for Myself: Anthology of Asian Women’s Writing (2009) and Sui Dhaga: Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread (2010) to Across the Himalayan Gap: A Chinese Quest for Understanding India (2013) and Culture of Indigo in Asia: Plant, Product and Power (2014). She was undoubtedly disheartened when she came under personal attack with demands to close down the IIC Asia Project. Once I remember asking her: “What would be left for posterity if an earthquake struck IIC?” Without waiting for an answer, I told her that the books produced by her project would be the only valuable assets to survive the calamity. Her face lit up with her inimitable smile.

Though I was acquainted with her earlier, I got close to her after she chaired the Third D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture in honour of my father, at the IIC in 2001. She was the IIC’s grand matriarch to whom everyone went for guidance. She was never patronising. She would always be receptive and inclusive, whether it was just discussing an idea or launching an initiative.

Kapila Vatsyayan was the final sutradhar in my 53-minute film Highway to the Asian Century , which was about an arduous road journey of 7,600 kilometres from New Delhi to Hanoi, Vietnam. She spoke of a futuristic train journey on the same route with “railway tracks of ideas, value systems and intellectual discourses”. “You, yourself took a journey but in that journey you yourself were also transformed.” When I recorded her interview in 2003, I did not realise how prophetic she would turn out to be. It took me eight more years to screen the film, with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), who had funded the project, turning spoilsport. In 2011, at the film’s premier at the IIC, Kapila Vatsyayan presided while Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai launched it in the presence of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ambassadors. While I was escorting her to the function, she told me of the need to organise a conference on Asian media. So in October 2013, the Asia Project organised an Asian Media Conference, “Asia: Speaking to Ourselves”, to highlight the critical need to establish direct linkages and overcome the dependence on news hubs in London, Paris and New York. She invited me to be the coordinator of the conference. She was a tireless organiser who thought on her feet.

In 2006, Vatsyayan was nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha but resigned in the wake of the controversy over the office of profit issue. She was renominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2007 and remained a member until her term expired in 2012.

In 2008, she launched the “Taking Children To Gandhi” (TCTG) programme of the Working Group on Alternative Strategies at the IIC. For the launch, we screened the 40-minute documentary film Tees Janvari: Jagran aur Gavahi (1991) which I had made with Ramchandra Gandhi on the significance of Gandhji’s martyrdom. The film left her moist-eyed and she gave an emotionally charged address to the students that day, recalling that she was dancing when she heard the ghastly news of Gandhiji's assassination and how, with one ghungroo still tied on her ankle, she rushed on her bicycle to Birla House and heard Nehru’s memorable words: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” The TCTG programme was conceptualised by me around the lives of Gandhi-Martin Luther King-Nelson Mandela and, in these 12 years, more than 12,000 students drawn from schools across Delhi NCR have joined the programme at the IIC. Many times, Kapila Vatsyayan would drop by unannounced and be flocked by the students wanting to be photographed or selfied with the iconic legend they had only heard about.

In March 2015 I was elected to the Executive Committee (E.C.) of IIC. Kapila Vatsyayan was my support arm and exceptional guide always encouraging me. She was very disturbed with the then goings on at the Centre. Many times I would get a call from Ramachandran: “Kapila ji wants to see you, can you please come over.” But when I would go to her with my woes, she would ask me to keep my cool while calling for the staple Darjeeling tea and biscuits. The E.C. meetings had turned into a veritable battleground with the then Director surreptitiously scuttling things. The E.C. members art critic Shanta Sarbjeet Singh and former Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath were with me but we were all up against a wall. Kapila Vatsyayan would advise patience and dogged humour.

I do not remember even one instance when she refused a request to chair or speak at a meeting. Whether it was discussing institutional autonomy within the government ambit after I was appointed a member of the expert group on Prasar Bharati-government relationship, welcoming the Founding President of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, for a televised conversation which I hosted, flagging off the first heritage walk of IIC on its annual day which I had conceptualised, presiding over Russian Ambassador Sasha’s (Alexander Kadakin) memorial meeting at the IIC which deeply touched the entire Russian diplomatic community or hosting high tea for Ashis Nandy for winning the Hans Kilian Prize, she did it all. Over the years, even with her fragile health and failing eyesight, sometimes using her opera glasses, she made it a point to be there for IIC programmes organised by me. If she missed attending a programme, she would ask for its recording. Just before the pandemic struck, she had joined us on March 7 to mark the 28th anniversary of the Working Group for Economist Amit Bhaduri’s talk on Indian nationalism and economic development.

In February 2020, the IIC International Research Division organised an international conference on “Understanding Africa: Continuity and Change”. This was to be the last international meet organised by Kapilaji and 15 delegates had flown in from Africa. She was very keen that I present a paper at the conference on Africa-India Media Connectivity. She, the ebullient host, was with us throughout the two-day conference.

She relentlessly pursued the project of keeping the liberal-democratic-plural-inclusive intellectual flame alive at the IIC for 32 years until her last breath with single minded devotion. Her life and work will be an inspiration for generations to come.

Suhas Borker is Editor of Citizens First TV (CFTV) and Convener, Working Group on Alternative Strategies.

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