Kapila Vatsyayan: The keeper of Indian art, culture and education
A Yug Manush has gone. Kapila Vatsyayan, the many splendoured titan in the field of arts, its scholarship, education and administration passed away on Wednesday of old-age complications. No one held as commanding a position in the arts in India over the last half century as Kapila Vatsyayan, who combined the highest and most unparalleled arts scholarship and institution-building experience.
Born on December 25, 1928, to the Delhi-based Malik family, her mother Satyawati was a freedom fighter. It was a family comfortable with the arts at a time when few were. Her elder brother Keshav Malik, was an art critic and poet. She married renowned Hindi poet, SH Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’, but the couple parted ways early.
She was trained in kathak by Pandit Acchan Maharaj (father of Pandit Birju Maharaj), and in Manipuri by Guru Amobi Singh, who also taught her not to give aghat (hurt) to the earth. She followed this lesson religiously and lived her life lightly, sustainably, wearing handlooms and khadi at all times. She also learnt Bharatnatyam from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Odissi from Surendranath Jena.
Few know that she performed in the ballets (Kalidas, Kumar Sambhav and Braj Leela) at the National Dance Festival of 1954, which was one of the earliest initiatives organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, whose Fellow she was to become in 1970 — a recognition for her lifetime contribution to the arts. She was made a Fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1995 and awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2011.
An undergraduate student of Hindu College, Kapila Vatsyayan did her first Masters in English from Delhi University, her second Masters in Education from the University of Michigan, US, and her doctorate from Banaras Hindu University. She studied western ways of analysing movement by mastering the Laban notation system and was prized as a scholar both in the east and the west. In 1998, she was awarded by the Congress on Research in Dance for her Outstanding Contribution to Dance.
The inside-outside view of dance that she possessed, allowed her to understand the spine of dance and many remember her explaining dance genres by the way the spine was held. Often called the grand matriarch of cultural research, she wove multiple art disciplines, authored many robustly researched, incisive and path-breaking books such as The Square and the Circle in Indian Art, Plural Cultures and Monolithic Structures, and The Natyashastra. One of the doctoral students she guided, Navina Jafa recalls how Vatsyayan could connect the dots between disciplines with such felicity. Most recently, she was leading the Asia project of the India International Centre, of which she was a lifetime trustee.
She advised three prime ministers, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, on matters educational and cultural, in the foundational period of nation building. She represented India on UNESCO’s board. Well known is her role as founder of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Lesser known is her role in establishing the Central University of Tibetan Studies and the Sarnath Centre for Cultural Resources and Training. Even lesser known is the fact that she enjoyed cooking and even acted in a 1997 Hindi film called Swara Mandal. She leaves behind a void that appears impossible to fill.
Arshiya Sethi has served as the creative head of programmes at the India Habitat Center. A well known authority on Indian performing arts, she was a recipient of the Fulbright - Nehru Post Doctoral fellowship