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Kapila Vatsyayan (1928-2020): ‘Art was expression of life for her’

Vatsyayan would eke out the essence of every art tradition and see it in the light of modernity.

kapila vatsyayan, kapila vatsyayan death, kapila vatsyayan age, who was kapila vatsyayan, kapila vatsyayan indian express, kapila vatsyayan work, indian express lifestyleKapila Vatsyayan passed away early Wednesday at her residence here. She was 91. (File)

Scholar, institution builder, cultural matriarch – Kapila Vatsyayan was known for her intimate knowledge of Indian classical dance and her innate ability to knit literature and the arts in the aesthetic understanding of it. Founding director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, Vatsyayan was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2011. A Rajya Sabha MP and bureaucrat, she was instrumental in guiding policies that impacted Indian dance. Vatsyayan passed away early Wednesday at her residence here. She was 91.

Born in Delhi, she was the second child to her parents Ram Lal and Satyawati. Vatsyayan’s mother, a Hindi writer, was instrumental in getting her to learn dance from the age of eight. Her elder brother Keshav Malik was a poet and younger brother Subhash Malik a cultural anthropologist. Thus, Vatsyayan grew up in an environment that nurtured writers and thinkers.

Vatsyayan learned dance under gurus including Kathak maestro Acchan Maharaj, father of Pandit Birju Maharaj; Bharatanatyam exponent Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai; and later from Rukmini Devi Arundale’s disciple Lalitha. She also learned other dance forms including Manipuri and Odissi.

After her Masters in English from Delhi University, she went to the US for higher studies. It was there that she was exposed to modern dance techniques and literary studies, and through readings of the Upanishads and cultural philosophers like Ananda Coomaraswamy she grew to understand dance as a way of self-awareness. Subsequently, she returned to India and did her Phd at BHU under scholar Vasudeva Sharan Agarwal, who helped strengthen her foundation in Sanskrit, Indology and archaeology. In 1956, she married Hindi writer S H Vatsyayan, but they later separated.

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Vatsyayan would eke out the essence of every art tradition and see it in the light of modernity. This culminated in her book Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts (Sangeet Natak Akademi, 2007). This book would show the way for many writers in understanding how rasa was not just mood and emotion but a state of being, and how to understand it one had to delve into literature, sculpture, painting, music and theatre. Many dance scholars across Southeast Asia would use her approach in understanding their respective dance forms in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia.

“She gave writers like me a three-dimensional view of the arts. During my Ph.D in the late 1970s, I had no understanding of many aspects of Indian classical dance. She guided me in understanding Natya Shastra,” said dance historian and critic Sunil Kothari.

At IGNCA, she envisioned the concept of Mati Ghar as a gallery space with German art history scholar T S Maxwell. Three seminal exhibitions (Kham, Akara, Kaal, from 1986 to 1991), which looked at time and space across civilisations, disciplines and texts, placed the institution on the cultural map.


“Art was always an expression of life for her. At IGNCA, she brought scholars from everywhere, they were not only artists but also philosophers and scientists. It was a vibrant time when she headed the institution,” said Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director, Sahapedia, who worked with her in the late 1990s.

Not someone to mince words, Vatsyayan was strong, forceful and committed to excellence. She influenced many institutions of knowledge including the Central University of Tibetan Studies, Centre for Cultural Resource and Training and the India International Centre, where she was on the Board of Trustees.

Rajeev Lochan, former director, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, said that Vatsyayan straddled tradition and contemporality equally well. “For her, it was a continuum,” he said.


“As dancers, we viewed her as a scholar, but she liked to be seen as a dancer. Nobody else has her scholarship or the philosophical grace. She was an ashraya, an umbrella, who shaded and nourished us,” said Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson.

First published on: 17-09-2020 at 02:22 IST
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