The divide between scholarship in the arts and the practice itself, runs deep. I imagine that it isn’t just an Indian phenomenon. But it can easily tip over in a country like ours because of the existence of a large number of ancient texts on every subject under the sun including dramaturgy; because practice continues to this day in various forms and is living proof of the survival of these ancient practices, be they religious, artistic, craft or customs; and because of our diversity, which allows for opposite and contrary ways of practising the forms. Many artists who fancifully tried to straddle these two worlds have found themselves ostracised by both scholars and gurus. In India, a local motor-mechanic who is perhaps formally uneducated is called ustad or dada for his understanding of the heartbeat of an engine and is given all the respect awarded to a guru. Such is the respect for a practitioner.
Kapila Vatsyayan straddled both these worlds and sought them out with an equal passion and vigour. In the last few decades, she included an even wider discourse in the social sciences and art — in social, political and economic theories, as they influenced societies and the relationship between individuals. Anthropology, archaeology, iconography, human geography, linguistics and social history — she saw how these roads met and linked them in a way few can. The building and subsequent support of art institutions was a cause she believed in. She thought of herself as an artist, a dancer.
Unfortunately, when you live a long and fruitful life as she did, your disappointment in men and matters increases with each passing year. And that is not merely because your eyesight or hearing is failing you, especially in the auditoria of our time when the music can be loud and jarring. It is because you have, in your youth, been fortunate to have seen the great gurus perform in the remotest corners of India, in the humble, yet aesthetic surroundings of their thatched homes, local temples, gurukulas, courtyards, in monasteries, in forests and on the sand-dunes. That is art of another hue. One that is not self-conscious. One that is given freely, not to an audience, though there may be one, but because it is an offering to the highest senses.
Kapilaji was a tall person and she frowned quite a bit. You knew that she was caught up in a world of thought and philosophy. She had little time for the mundane. Yet she was gentle when she thought you needed her good counsel. Then she looked you straight in the eye and asked pertinent questions. She usually knew what was worrying you. She had seen the offices and corridors of the Ministry of Culture. She had worked under Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in the Sangeet Natak Akademi. She had seen the great museums in the West, visited the monuments of art across the Subcontinent and most of all, interacted with the sharpest intellects and philosophers across the globe. If she had not met them, she knew of their writings and had absorbed their theories.
Young artists like me, who had been trained in the old gurukulams or with the stalwart gurus of the early decades after Independence, but had started our performing lives in Delhi, often met her scrupulous eye. Her lectures were riveting, but also went over our heads. She was seen at functions and performances, but despised “the front row syndrome” of Delhi. Instead, even at the India International Centre, she would slip into a seat at the back row and leave at will. It was always a privilege to have her drop you a comment or criticism, later, in private.
Once at a Natya Kala Conference in Chennai, Sadanam Balakrishnan, a great Kathakali exponent, had demonstrated a story in abhinaya. People were deeply moved, she amongst them. She came on stage and asked the audience whether they understood how he had produced the rasa. The obvious reaction was he performed abhinaya or facial expression, augmented by an elaborate use of hasta mudras and thus told the story. She disagreed. She said that to produce the rasa he had used his breath and that he had brought colour and expression to his face through his very breath. And that is what an audience must appreciate. Such a sharp and sensitive mind is unlikely to be seen for generations to come.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 21, 2020 under the title ‘Scholar And Artist’. The writer is former director, Kalakshetra, and chairperson, Sangeet Natak Akademi