Acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of Thalia Prize


Kapila Vatsyayan
The Hon’ble Minister of Culture, President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) Mr. Yun-Cheol Kim, Members of the Executive Committee of IATC and distinguished participants in the Congress:

I am deeply honoured and touched by the decision of the Executive Committee of IATC to award me the 4th Thalia Prize in recognition of my humble contribution in cultural education, administration, and artistic works.   I am at a loss to put in words my sense of gratitude to those who have selected me for the award, named after the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia.   Thalia was a Muse of Comedy undoubtedly, but she was also one amongst the several Graces.  I hope that her grace and spirit will envelop us and she will accept my homage.

IATC has had a remarkable journey since its inception in 1956. Over these decades it has grown in stature and its reach has extended to many continents of the world.  Despite political and social changes in the world, the Association has continued with its task of gathering critics, both journalists and academics, for an exchange of knowledge, experiences and opinions.

I am doubly honoured because, as the fourth recipient of the Thalia award, I am in the company of the great, internationally acclaimed theatre critics/scholars/writers.  One has learnt a great deal from Eric Bentley’s books on theatre generally and the role of the dramatist specifically.  One resonates with Jean-Pierre Sarrazac, prolific playwright and director, when he underlines the hybridity and interactivity of forms and themes in contemporary study of dramatic writing.  One has admired the contribution of Richard Schechner, author of many publications and editor of the prestigious TDR (The Drama Review), which have significantly affected the perceptions of the theatre worldwide.  His work on the Ram Lila in Varanasi has been acclaimed for its perspicacity, insight and empathy.

I am particularly happy to receive the award during the tenure of Yun-Cheol Kim of South Korea, a country known for its culture, its sophistication and its immaculate precision in matters artistic, be it drama or porcelain.  The fact that the IATC meeting is being held in Warsaw, Poland, is of great significance. Poland has had a long and distinguished history of creativity in many domains.  It has also a history of incomparable fortitude and courage.  My own association with Poland goes back to more than half a century.  I have known and admired the Polish character, resilience in moments of strife, and have also admired the manner of transformation and regeneration.   South Korea and Poland are two polarities but they are in communication as the East and the West, and I have ad the privilege of knowing both sides.

Being given the award by the International Association of Theatre Critics specifically for a dancer is welcome. It would appear that whatever little I have contributed has travelled beyond the shores of India.  I wish I could be present on this occasion to share the significant moment and also learn from the many distinguished and experienced artists and critics present here.  I regret my inability to do so.  Your Excellency, Mr. Minister, please forgive me for my absence because it would have been a great privilege for me to receive this award from your hands.

This is not the occasion to talk about the nature of Asian dance or Indian dance but perhaps it is necessary to underline that neither at the theoretical level nor at the level of performance there has been any clear-cut distinction between what we call Theatre and what we call Dance.   In Greek theatre, movement was intrinsic to the theatrical spectacle.  One does not have to refer to Aristotle’s Poetics to remind ourselves that theatre was all-inclusive, of movement and mime.  It is not for me to recount the history of the shift from the great Greek theatre space – such as Epidouros – to closed theatres and Proscenium stages.  Nor is it necessary at this point to refer to the nature of drama and theatre in these closed spaces, with emphasis on the spoken word and the division between the dramatic spectacles and the audience. Also well known and acknowledged today is the history of interrogation of the cloistered proscenium stage, realistic theatre and the divorce of theatre from movement or dance.  In this context perhaps a reference to the emergence of classical ballet in the West as a counterpoint or a counterfoil to theatre is relevant.

These preliminary and almost innocent remarks are pertinent here, because this is where now not only the ‘West meets the East’ – the influence of Chinese opera on European theatre – but, more, the ‘Ancient meets the Modern’.   In the Indian context – and this would be true of other theoretical, theatrical and performance genres in Asia – as I said in the beginning, there are no clear distinctions in what is considered theatre and what is considered dance.   This is where the first theorist of the 2nd century BC – 2nd century AD, viz., Bharata, my intellectual guru and mentor, continues to be pertinent.

Bharata formulated that theatrical experience was total comprising expression through word, movement and gesture, costuming and, most of all, inner states of mind.   He unfolds through 36 chapters both his vision as also the structure of what we would consider as the dramatic or the theatrical.  I do not have to elaborate on this because my friend and distinguished Polish author Dr. Krzysztof Byrski has written brilliantly on this.  For me it has been a journey from practice to theory rather than accepting a theoretical position and then exploring or critiquing the phenomenon.

I began as a dancer and even at this age I continue to be a dancer.  My teachers came from all parts of India – north (Kathak), south (Bharatanatyam and Kathakali), and the east (Manipuri and Odisha).  As valuable was the learning from great masters and artists from the West.   I owe a deep debt to Rudolph van Laban, whom I met briefly in Manchester, and imbibed his vision and approach through a long and sustained relationship with his daughter Juana de Laban, who was also my teacher.  Besides, there was the opportunity to learn and to share my humble reservoir of Indian dance with artists such as Haniya Holm. My interactions with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham have been enriching and stimulating.  The lesson I learnt was that body in place and body in space was universal, the Alpha and the Omega.

At home in India I imbibed centuries of austere training and internalization from great masters.  One teacher, at 92, said that he now began to understand the intricacies of the movement of the fingers in relation to the palm and the wrist.  Another from South India, also past 90, a teacher of many great Indian dancers, responded to my endless questions, ignorant as I was, saying, ‘look, I am at the shore, looking at the ocean, watching the tides – sometime the tide comes and envelopes me.  Instead of asking me too many verbal questions, if you study dance with me for at least ten or twelve years, a drop of water from the tide may touch you’.

These are not reminiscences or tributes; they are the essence of communicating an attitude to the body.  It is bringing home the point that it is only through the body that you can transcend the body.  Unless there was and is this intense, extensive, prolonged engagement in the discipline, there can be no critiquing and no verbalization.  I have had the opportunity and privilege not only to be rigorously trained but also to be a participant in the vast canvas of the Indian theatrical traditions at the rural level, at the tribal level, reinforced by the training in modern dance and the ability to acquire the tools to analyze and even notate.   My writing has therefore made a humble effort to grasp the practice at different levels, to present overviews, interactions, inter-dependences, distinctiveness of the socio-cultural context, and yet universality. I have by volition tried to focus attention on the living and vibrant tradition, rather than confining myself to historical narrations. Thus, the book ‘Traditional Indian Theatre, Multiple Streams’ is an attempt to bridge the past and the present, what may be called theatre and dance.  It also interrogates the notion of a polarity between classical and folk.

At another level I have attempted to unfold the structure of the theoretical formulations in the Indian tradition, specially the textual tradition.   Thus my book ‘Bharata: The Natyasastra’ and the other volumes, edited, reveal the principles of the aesthetic theories as also the emergent instruments of communication.

Parallelly has been my endeavour to identify the fundamental mathematical principles underlying all the arts, ranging from architecture, theater, dance and music.  The book ‘The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts’ addresses itself to the fundamental mathematical and geometrical abstractions underlying these arts.

Logically it was the study of dance and theatre which propelled me to view all Indian arts in their aspects of inter-relationship and inter-dependence.  The bronze figure of Mohenjadaro, sculptural reliefs on the Indian monuments – Hindu, Buddhist or Jain – and Southeast Asia monuments – Borobudur, Prambanan, Angkor Vat, Wat Pho, Mi-son, Pagan – told me incontrovertibly that the sculptural reliefs were only ‘arrested movement’.

The theatrical spectacles and the countless forms of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the dance traditions in Asia were the kinetic re-living of the frozen movement.  The spoken word, chanted or narrated, was basic, as was the music and the musical tonalities.  Again and again, the dialogue between King Vajra and Markandeya in the famous Indian text, Visnudharmottara Purana, comes back to me.   This is a long dialogue.  Pithily put:

King Vajra requests the sage to accept him as his disciple and teach him the art of icon-making, so that he may worship the deities in their proper forms.  The sage replies that one cannot understand the principles of image-making without knowledge of painting.  The king wishes for instruction in this art and is told that, unless he is accomplished as a dancer, he cannot grasp even the rudiments of painting.  The king requests that he be taught dancing, whereupon the sage replies that, without a keen sense of  rhythm or knowledge of instrumental music, proficiency in dance is impossible.  Once again the king requests that he be taught these subjects; to which the sage replies that a mastery of vocal music is necessary before one can be proficient in instrumental music; and so finally the sage takes the king through all these stages before he is taught the art of iconography.

Thank you.

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