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Kapila Vatsyayan: The Visionary Who Defined Indian Aesthetic Theory

Kapila Vatsyayan’s vision was driven by a necessity to develop a terminology to be able to examine Indian art in its own art history.
Kapila Vatsyayan (1928-2020). Photo: Bharat Tiwari

In 2011, I was commissioned to curate an exhibition on ‘The Body in Indian Art and Thought’. The show was put on the road in 2013 with a grand opening by the president of India and the king of the Belgians at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Only five years earlier, however, the very same venue had hosted another exhibition of Indian art called ‘Tejas’, curated by Kapila Vatsyayan.

And with all the bureaucratic clout, people imagined Kapila wielded with the Congress party high command. However, the truth was that the ineffectiveness of the National Museum and the bureaucracy in India’s Ministry of Culture led to a terrible embarrassment for her and the country on the exhibition’s opening night: several pedestals, especially created for Indian sculptures, lay empty.

Delays at the National Museum, the nodal agency appointed to organise the paperwork for the loan and export of the artworks, had apparently let us down. Prime ministers and heads of state walked through her exhibition on the opening night muttering why this was so typical of India?

If this had been the fate of a curator and administrator of Kapila’s stature, what chance had I, then a mere 35-year-old fledgling in the field, to negotiate any constructive responses from the corridors of Shastri Bhavan? I was frank about my apprehensions when I went to ask her for advice, and she warned me about what I needed to be cautious of at the National Museum, the ministry in Shastri Bhavan, and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR).

I learned very quickly to negotiate those corridors knotted in red tape. I leveraged the embarrassment she had been subjected to at every stage, reminding administrators of what their departments had failed to do just a few years back; that they could well cost India its reputation once again. That was not, of course, the first time I had witnessed how she was being undermined.

The last 15 years of her life had been tough. She responded with determination to protect the institutions she had helped create and their ideological basis from being erased out of public memory.

Some of my teachers, who later became colleagues and even friends, told me how important her voice was in the landmark exhibition, ‘In the Image of Man’, as the lead show for the 1982 Festival of India at the Hayward Gallery in London. But they also remarked that what she had written was excessive in its quotations of vedic texts, on the bounty of nature and metaphysics, and simply cut off her essays where the page designer could not accommodate any more text.

Here then, was another cautionary tale of how Indian philosophy was being instrumentalised for consumption by a western audience as a ticket to bolster the image of India, and Kapila was being used, at times disrespected, as the agent to deliver that.

It was the same with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). She was entrusted with the task of providing a conceptual framework for the enterprise, and her long-held dictum of ‘sarvam sarvaatmakam’, that everything in its detail is related to the whole, in the end, proved just too much to administer, or for many to even understand. She was acutely aware of a need to have a more capacious definition of ‘art’ that was sensitive to Indian culture, and not limited by separations of classical and folk, Sanskritic and vernacular.

She was also aware that those living traditions of India that were fragile could not be preserved or documented without respect for their natural habitat. Invitations to bring those traditions to the national capital and showcase them in alien venues were fraught with problems one of the biggest being an inability to showcase their context and natural habitat, or allocate the venues to erect dwellings and spaces as they wished, on the open land that the Central Vista Mess on Janpath, provided.

Kapila, who had curated an identity for the Indian vernacular and folk to be introduced in the Republic Day parade in the 1950s, knew all too well that there was a grander requirement to place the living cultures of India at the very heart of the national capital where visitors from the provinces could mix with the intellectuals. As stated earlier, regrettably, few administrators could countenance such a requirement for space or vision.

The India office of the British Library in London, and the American Institute of Indian Studies, had performed the yeoman role in the documentation of Indian art and culture as we did not have the comparable repositories or libraries that had been developed by India. The arts of India needed documentation such that the intellectual property and administration lay with India and not abroad.

Kapila knew that archives had to be built with the financial capacity to buy the letters, papers and documentation of great scholars that was available abroad, as much as by funding scholars to document collections, festivals, and performances.

As I began to research, write and curate the exhibition on the ‘Body’, I found my approach was different from, but built upon and in response to, the many postulates contained in her conception of ‘In the Image of Man’. Kapila was concerned with the philosophical base of Hindu and Buddhist art history, while my own work has been more on the sociological side of aesthetics and iconography. Hers was not restricted to the subject of anthropomorphism even though ‘Man’ was the show’s title.

It was not, in sum, very different from her better titled show, ‘Tejas’. I had tried to incorporate greater historicism and articulated the social and political crises of our times than her exhibition had, even though I had included contemporary art and aspects of living culture alongside ancient art. She saw the difference, we talked about it.

For my research, I had relied heavily on the very useful libraries and documentation available at the IGNCA. It was really, by far, the only archive in India that provided what I needed. And none can deny that the ideas that went into all that this institution has sought to document was enabled by her vision.

Indira Gandhi National Center for Arts, New Delhi. Photo: Aashish Bhatnagar/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Constituting a vision

Kapila Vatsyayan’s vision was driven by a necessity to develop a terminology to be able to examine Indian art in its own art history. The conflicts inherent in this were far greater than what the pioneering art historians defining the field: Josef Strzygowski, Heinrich Zimmer, Ananda Coomaraswamy, among others, had encountered.

By the time of the next generation, including Indian art historians Stella Kramrisch, Alice Boner and Kapila Vatsyayan, this enterprise remained in danger of imposing on culture the prejudiced mindsets that those terms once carried – whether they were used a hundred years before colonial rule, or seven hundred years earlier in the Hindu kingdoms. Soon enough, the predictable fractures emerged – a cacophonous plurality of positions. The oft-repeated question remained: was there ever a unified, single way to define ‘Indian’ aesthetic theory?

These were critically important questions for those defining India in a post-colonial world. Kapila Vatsyayan stuck to what has been called a ‘Nehruvian’ position of the nation and region, in which the unifying thread across the diversity of cultures held greater significance rather than the space given to celebrate difference for fear of the fissiparous tendencies inherent in the country. That is not to say that diversity and difference were not showcased. However, the vocabulary used to register that difference was primarily located in Sanskrit.

Kapila inherited the debates of older generations on art versus craft, ‘margi’ and ‘desi’, ‘shastriya’ and ‘loka’, and spent much of her career exploring this through the many documentation projects enabled by the IGNCA. She sought out the sanskritist Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal to guide her in Indian art, and V. Raghavan and Thakur Jaideva Singh for aesthetics, musicology and Kashmir Shaivism.

One of the grandest projects of the IGNCA, the Kalatattvakosha, is a marvellous idea that few who are looking for the philosophical depth and meaning of the arts in India can manage without. It is now in seven volumes; each volume deals with a detailed lexicon of select terms in Indian art: chhaya, rupa, lakshana, sharira, shilpa, taala, aakaara, and anukarana, for instance, are some of the key terms that I find myself having to refer to again and again, each so rich that some of them need elaboration over 200 pages of a volume.

Information on each conceptual term was collated by a team of researchers (under the direction of assigned editors) that she curated into a set. Enlightened and rich as each enterprise is, the Kalatattvakosha really does not explain the context for the shifts in the meaning of the terms, historically. Embedded in her writings, are her reasons for not.

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The historiography against which she located some of her writings, were defining parameters for those working in field of modern art in the 1940s and ’50s. She never really crossed the hurdle from a position of philosophy to the parlance of social history, or more lately, of the sort of critical theory that became de rigeur after the 1980s. The work remained branded by the kudos Hindu philosophy earned from its claim to command a living tradition that was millennia old.

Atavism and ahistoricism were charges levied against her; charges which she took on board and, importantly, maintained clarity about her perspective. She addressed her position straightforwardly in her introduction to Bharata’s Natyashastra, when she said what was valuable “…about the attitude of the author, [was] the nature of the relationship between the celestial and the terrestrial, the different orders of knowledge, the requirement of discipline and training and a final goal which must be [a] transpersonal-self.” She continued, “It is… an attitude of mind which is more important and basic than mere historical dating and identity of individual authorship.”

Kapila Vatsyayan was enamoured by the richness of the Indian Sanskritic tradition. She was sensitive to, and honest about the fact that this was not a static tradition and had undergone many changes. Dating those changes, and the wider political and social forces that enabled them, the whys and when, were both uncomfortable impediments for her macro engagements. This made her scholarly enterprise one-sided, but what a rich and important side it was.

This was a one-sidedness, constantly provoked by everything being said on the other side. And this position was enabled by the most powerful financial and administrative powers in the field of Indian culture for decades. This makes the oeuvre of what she has sponsored, commissioned, and even written, too important to be ignored.

She was not a theoretical art historian alone. She handled, with equal strength, the other side of the world of art history that comes from practical doing: the rhythms of dancing, the melodic sway of the music, the percussion of the looms that wove textiles, the gestures of the masks that defined the many iconographies of Indian art.

She gained sound foundations first through Kathak under Acchan Maharaj, and then went on to learn Bharatanatyam under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Manipuri from Amubi Singh and learnt much from guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar in Kerala. In fact, the time she spent at the Kerala Kalamandalam, made clearer her quest to use practice to write history and inform policy.

Ever an ‘Indian modernist’, she spent time amongst modern writers in Hindi and English, and various Indian languages. She found inspiration in the kindred spirits of Mulk Raj Anand, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Jiwan Pani and Baidyanath Saraswati, each of whom worked at bringing the voices of India’s rural and vernacular traditions to the world stage.

Each of these people were confronted by the burning divide between the many cultures of the marginalised, and by finding the means for Indian institutions to learn to respectfully live with difference without absorbing them all in a Brahmanical Hindu hegemony. This was never going to be easy, because the linguistic arc and accretive nature of thousands of years of Sanskrit would forever colour it as being a one-sided affair. Maintaining a balance between these was going to be tough for the IGNCA.

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Finding ways to deal with pluralism

A collection of her essays and lectures on the demands of the state came out seven years ago under the title, Plural Cultures and Monolithic Structures. I reviewed it for the India International Centre’s journal, the very institution that she was patron of. I had an opportunity to discuss how her expectations of policy towards the arts were belied, the processes and ideas she wanted to develop, and her critique of the failure of the state and institutions she had helped create.

The book and its review provided a springboard for several informative discussions. And it may be pertinent to put down some of what I paraphrased and quoted of her position in that review.

India has been at the intellectual vanguard of defining the very nature of pluralism within a secular state. Can pluralism be achieved without secularism as a framework, and can respect for pluralism be avoided in the administration of India? She presented her essays in response to these questions, because majoritarian accommodation necessarily devolves into something hegemonic – in danger of a patronising accommodation of difference, rather than seeing the difference as a constitutive or defining quality.

Kapila Vatsyayan’s locus standi recognised pluralism as an imperative. She said, “Plurality and diversity demand organisational systems and institutional frameworks, which respond to the nature of plurality and multi-identities.” Thus, several of the essays presume knowledge, or in some cases provide information that demonstrate the complex nature of Indian plural identities. The question she poses for her book is: “Do the institutional frameworks in India allow for and recognise this?”

She continued, “The issue of structure, content and pedagogical methods of education cannot be disassociated from the administrative system that a country adopts for governance… Gandhi wished to completely rehaul, if not reject, the system. Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to reform the system. Morarji Desai headed an administrative reforms commission. Indira Gandhi had a love-hate relationship with it, and therefore, often bypassed the system. Rajiv Gandhi wanted radical changes. And yet the strongest monolithic structure is the administrative system with or without the rusted iron frame of the administrative services.”

“The impersonal plethora of rules and regulations are, to [say] the least, archaic and anachronistic. Anyone who has handled the administrative system from the inside is aware of the multiple hierarchies. The antiquated rules largely evolved during the ‘Raj’ are ill-suited for the new goals. Comments have been made by national and international experts and the UNDP human development report calls the system flabby and unmanageable.”

Kapila Vatsyayan (1925-2020) seen here with Jawaharlal Nehru in an undated photograph. Source: Personal collection

“The fundamental question is whether the uniform administrative system takes into account plurality, and whether there is space and place for flexibility and initiative. The answers to both questions are unfortunately in the negative. The system is an outstanding example of a wooden monolithic structure …governing, regulating and facilitating plurality by the adoption of uniform models is difficult if not impossible. Either the plurality of cultures is pushed to a controlled homogeneity, or the norms and regulations are twisted and turned, even distorted and misused.”

Vatsyayan was clear that the plural position is enshrined in Indian sacred literature, “the recognition of the principles of the one and the many, the containment of opposites in a framework of complementarity and not competition, the emergence of the principles of non-duality, the flowering of a system and sub-systems not based on binary opposites but on triads and foursomes, the movements of creating dissent within a framework of the legitimisation of departures by finding detour paths of acceptance, all comprise a cultural history yet to be written or taught.”

However, most saw her as subscribing to India’s eternal transcendental wisdom, while “a second deeper look” at the violence on account of difference (and in pluralism) she acknowledged, “invariably brings to surface the neatly camouflaged economic inequalities and motivations of power which are the implicit and explicit levels of tension and conflict.” The core of a socialist thus emerges – one that was aware of the problems and had stuck with conviction, to the only real path she knew could work.

Undated file photograph of Kapila Vatsyayan at a reception in Delhi with Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Personal collection

In order to demonstrate the plurality she lists a few complexities in language, race, social organisation and caste, regionalism, and the whole matter of culture. She went back to the terms she had selected for the Kalatattvakosha, like shastra, prayoga and loka in particular, which had defined the department of IGNCA called ‘Janapada-sampada’. This brought in other terms like ‘margi’ and ‘desi’, ‘nagara’ and ‘graama’ and the changing parameters of the engagement of man (as ‘purusha’) within these spaces, languages, cultural blocs.

She noted the long acknowledgement of these terms in Indian pedagogy, and therefore, the pains taken by Indian aestheticians, who had tried to redefine these words for centuries. The crisis in finding a plural way of living and defining society is not one we face only now, but the desire for finding the terms for a plural and inclusive state have been long-standing.

The presence of this on-going discourse is also indicative of the fact that there has never been a utopian state of a harmonious plural condition, but one that the intelligentsia has always aspired to.

Distance can sharpen vision

A capacity to look at India from the outside was intrinsic to understanding what needed to be done on the inside. Educated in Santiniketan, Delhi University, Banaras Hindu University, and at Ann Arbor, Michigan, she was much respected internationally, having been an advisor to several departments of higher learning on Indian culture. Germane to her growth was not just the time she had spent abroad on her education, but the experience she gathered as the director of the newly shaped Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) in the 1950s and ’60s.

There was a requirement for an organisation to take over and look into presenting Indian culture to the world. Without a private sector or individuals who could fill that role anymore, it was recognised that it would need to act as its own impresario and patronise its art worldwide.

The older agents who had helped take Uday Shankar and others to the world stage in the 1930s were gone, and India was now espousing an international cultural policy on its own, as an independent republic that had to ensure that the variety of India’s cultures were given a platform. This meant also giving an opportunity to artistes from parts of India that had never received international (or even national) exposure.

Criteria for selection had to be established, and here, in came the bureaucracy again. It also required interpreters and curators, a respectful briefing of the artists to organise their repertoire for the countries they were to perform in, without diminishing either the veracity of their tradition, or letting the new viewing public down, or leaving the artistes themselves dissatisfied. The curation of that repertoire became a formula for, and even a defining canon of ‘shastriya’ Indian performing arts, one that in time justifiably laid itself open to question and needed to be reformed.

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Vatsyayan took on board the conversation around how finding the changing definitions of what constitutes ‘shaastra’, or the shifting definitions of the idea of a ‘loka’ in the intellectual history of India, was indicative of the ‘concessions’ that the high-minded sanskritists were willing to admit to. After all, what happens to those many other voices, like in the Tamil tradition, which have an equally long set of aesthetic terms that seek to define the changing nature of the constituents of culture differently from the Sanskrit tradition?

And then, there are the many ‘others’ who may not have had a developed literary tradition and have not left a record of their cultural annihilation in their own voice, all of whom comprise the most vulnerable elements of a plural ideal? And herein lies the double-bind: can we only hear the minoritarian voice through the language of the dominant elite? Is the history of pluralism bound to follow the well-charted power dynamics of a mainstream peoples terms of engagement with the minoritarian?

Pluralism is a high-minded ideal, necessary, and one that needs to be constantly safeguarded, but with the best of intentions it is nigh impossible to maintain without collapsing difference. This leads to the impression of subsuming difference, or bringing difference to a common platform. Not bringing difference to the common discussion table, equally, has the effect of exclusion and marginalisation.

I voiced this problem in my review of her book and I think Kapila understood this problem well. English and Hindi apart, she spoke Bangla and Punjabi fluently, and had a deep engagement with Sanskrit, Tamil, Oriya and Malayalam. She had researched ‘Jatra’ theatrical traditions in Bengal and Odisha, ‘Yakshagana’ in Karnataka, ‘Sattariya’ and ‘Lai Haroba’ in Assam and Manipur.

She made an important contribution for the Indian state to formally start recognising that its majoritarian Sanskritic history itself has been aware of this engagement with plural traditions, and given the significance she laid on the documentation of the many traditions of India, it was clear that the path she wished to forge ahead was to give their perspectives centre stage as well.

Her work on the Kerala Kshetram and the Gita Govinda were to prove instrumental in this growth. She produced five separate books on the Gita Govinda of Darbhanga, Mewar, Gujarat, Bundi each, of course, referencing Jayadeva’s famous tradition of Odisha. This opened up an all too important case of regional discourse being mediated via, or needing recourse to, Sankrit. It showed how canon formation could take place in the vernacular, while still remaining in a symbiotic relationship with Sanskrit.

My next real cause for engagement with her was as the editor of Marg as she was a trustee of the Marg Foundation. Her faith in the publication came not only from her old association with Mulk Raj Anand or her knowledge of Indian art, but because she knew that only if India maintained and valued its own journals and publishing of art and culture at the highest international intellectual levels, would the rest of the world’s shrinking attention to this subject be revived and even sustained.

The fate of other publications like Rupa-Lekha, Rupam, the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Modern Review and even Lalit Kala’s attention to historical art had diminished, scholarship was waning, and India was failing in maintaining a profile and outlet for discourse in the field. Having been at the forefront of nation-building through the arts, and with experience in why the many institutions that had been created to sustain that vision fail, she came across with profound concern and even grief at the current situation. The administrative or public ignorance apart, the stab that caused this grief was another, more personal one as well.

Time and again she would tell me, as I’m sure she did to herself, that at the end one must practice one’s art and profession for ‘svaanta sukhaay’, a personal peace. In her essay titled, This Matter of Education and Culture Again, she makes a strong plea to revive Gandhi’s model of basic education that tried to see economic and cultural freedom as one that could only emerge from a completely different attitude to work – one reliant on deriving joy from, and thus respect towards craft and manual labour.

Accolades and audiences, sponsorship and the administration of the arts, she knew only too well by then, had caused one to suffer. For all her successes in creating things, she had seen them twist and morph into something ungovernable and often misunderstood. These were not failures of a vision, but of the knotted problem of finding resolution or an acceptance of what constitutes the idea of, and the very nature of work in the field of the arts, in a highly competitive state where employment opportunities remained scarce.

Her vision had guided the creation of many institutions and enabled generations of scholarship on the arts. Her involvement with the IGNCA and ICCR apart, she had been instrumental in the creation and maintenance of the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) and the India International Centre in Delhi, she served in an advisory capacity for the formation of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, and in her roles as joint and additional secretary in the Ministry of Education and Culture of the government, she had been involved in establishing the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalilt Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi.

A member of the Rajya Sabha, awarded a fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Padma Shri and a Padma Vibhushan, she was amongst the truly pioneering women that shaped India. Raised by social reformers in the national movement, she learned to carve out a niche for herself through a life of the mind, but remained a committed artist all her life.

She used her physical training as a dancer to complement not just theory, but recognised how outer form articulated an inner vision that held India’s arts together. She sought to create spaces for the diversity of these visions that shaped how the world saw Indian culture for decades.

Naman P. Ahuja is professor of Art History and Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU.

This obituary was first published in Seminar magazine.

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