Kapila Vatsyayana, grand matriarch of cultural research demanded excellence

Topics Obituary | Indian art | Literature

Kapila Vatsyayan | Photo : Wikipedia
Nobody said Kapila Vatsyayana was an easy person to deal with for she did not suffer fools gladly. Respect for her was tinged by something akin to trepidation – you could never tell when she would tick you off waspishly for not being meticulous enough in your research or work. No one knew this better than her editors or their assistants should they have been less than exacting in their task. Her domain knowledge ranged from dance and theatre to architecture, and in art history she conceded ground to none other than her brother, the critic Keshav Malik, who predeceased her.

The grand matriarch of cultural research, she was a familiar sight in her crisp cotton or silk sarees in the corridors of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) of which she was a founding member, and to which she recently donated her formidable library. A literary tour de force, she had numerous published works to her credit, which included the pathbreaking The Square and the Circle of the Indian Arts, various treatises on dance, a few more on architecture, and a manuscript on the 16th century Gita-Govinda paintings of Mewar.

Critics complained that she treated IGNCA like her personal fiefdom, but it nevertheless earned the respect of scholars and universities under her leadership – one of few institutions that was admired around the world for the quality of its work. The Congress honoured her with a Padma Bhushan as well as a Rajya Sabha seat, which she was forced to return following allegations of office for profit. The Bharatiya Janata Party was more avuncular about her achievements, and she forfeited her role at IGNCA – first under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, and subsequently under the Modi regime. The 91-year-old was ostensibly retired at the time of her death, though she never stopped working.

In this photo dated, Aug 9, 2004, Padma Vibhushan and scholar Kapila Vatsyayan (L) with then President APJ Abdul Kalam, in New Delhi. Vatsyayan passed away on Sept 16, 2020 | PTI photo
Scholars may have been terrified of her, but for most others it was a pleasure to listen to her voice that she brought to bear on her extensive knowledge of the arts. A fellow of both Sangeet Natak Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi, she instituted a number of projects – establishing Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) for training school teachers in art and tradition to emphasise the element of culture in the education system, publishing annotated texts of the traditional arts at IGNCA, or having works re-translated from the Tibetan to the original Sanskrit at the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath.

In this file photo dated Aug. 3, 2017, Padma Vibhushan and scholar Kapila Vatsyayan (L) with former PM Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. Vatsyayan passed away on Sept 16, 2020 | PTI Photo
Former civil servant and poet, Ashok Vajpeyi – the two did not always see eye to eye – saw her contribution as being a bridge between traditionalists and modernists. “The traditionalists saw her as a modernist, and the modernists saw her as a traditionalist,” he has pointed out on a number of occasions, letting her segue the two. “She had an understanding of the Indian mind and aesthetics rooted in an innate plurality. She did not see change in Indian tradition as something opposite or outside tradition but within tradition.”

If she demanded excellence from scholars, she was no less exacting of herself. Her fierce devotion to her work was a reason for separation from her husband, Hindi writer Ajneya. A PhD from Banaras Hindu University had been preceded by an MA in Education from the University of Michigan and another in English from Delhi University. She devoured books, was personally acquainted with a very large number of practitioners of the arts, and her formidable knowledge allowed her to link traditions between dance forms instead of viewing them strictly within silos.

She allowed very few people to pierce her personal space, but those who did recall her as an individual who was warmer than her public persona allowed her to be. She loved the pure rasa of dance but also enjoyed its playful interpretation, was a supporter and patron of Indian aesthetics, and was known to have a sense of humour. Those of us foolhardy enough to share a platform with her without having done our homework first were certainly never privy to that last.
If her gimlet-eyed perfection in the literary fields of art and education will be missed, at least there are her books to remind us of her towering presence and extenuating scholarship that will be difficult to match in times to come.


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