NEW DELHI: Kapila Vatsyayan, art historian, dance scholar, ethnographer and institution builder, passed away in her Gulmohar Park home. She was 91. “She was an institution all by herself and a legend in her own lifetime,” says former diplomat Shyam Saran, who has worked with her for over four decades.
Over the last half a century, she brought her creativity, encyclopaedic scholarship and administrative vision to shape ideas and institutions. First encouraged by Jawaharlal Nehru as a cultural administrator, she took Indian art and culture to the international circuit through festivals, dialogues and events, and had an outsized influence in making artistic reputations in those decades.
Born in 1928, she studied in Delhi, the University of Michigan and the Banaras Hindu University. She also travelled across India, immersing herself in its dance and artistic traditions. She studied dance in her early life, notably Kathak and Manipuri. She trained under Acchan Maharaj, and brought his son Birju Maharaj to Delhi. She had also travelled and learnt Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and other dance forms, grounding her scholarship in practice. She also studied sculpture and painting. Vatsyayan is the author of about 20 books, including The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts (1997) and Bharata: The Natya Sastra (1996).
From the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1970 to the Padma Vibhushan in 2011, she had a string of awards and honorary degrees from India and abroad. In 1998, she was recognised for outstanding contribution by the US-based Congress for Research in Dance. She was on the executive committee of Unesco. She has been a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, and was a lifetime trustee of the India International Centre. She set up many institutions, including the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, and left her stamp on many more.
“She raised a generation of scholars who learnt to see the common threads that connect the cultural fabric of India in all its diversity, demolish false binaries of folk and classical, oral and textual, rural and urban,” says Dr Molly Kaushal, a scholar who had worked with Vatsyayan for decades and describes her as a “mentor and a mother”.
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