Kapila Vatsyayan Laudation


Long ago, I met briefly in Stockholm with Mrs Kapila Vatsyayan. It was immediately clear that this lady was a person of deep knowledge, highly refined culture and the impressing capacity to communicate both with ease. When later reading her writings, I was equally struck by her clearness in mind and the rare and specific beauty in her writing.


Nagrodę Thalia Prize w imienu lauretki odbiera prof. Ravi Chaturvedi (Indie) z rąk sekretarza generalnego IATC/AICT Michela Vaďsa (Kanada) – przed mikrofonem autorka laudacji Margareta Sörenson, wiceprzewodniczaca IATC/ AICT, fot. Anna Kędziorek

A person from the Western world easily feel helpless in front of the Indian culture and its performing arts. We are looking for story lines and characters to identify with, and we easily get suspicious when feeling lost in the fogs of spiritualism and religion. Here, the guidance of Kapila Vatsyayan is firm and distinct and miraculously combine a wide perspective, a historical one as well as a philosofical and political with the microcosmic notes on gestures and movements, masks and coulors, rhythm and sound. She introduces the ignorant reader with great efficiency:

”A mention of the performing arts of India immediately bring to one’s mind the single-bodied and many-armed image of Durga, or Shiva in his form as Nataraja, ever destroying, ever creating new forms of the dance Tandava. These symbols in plastic form suggest at one level the unified equilibrium, the still-centre, and at other, the continual play of ‘energy’ and rhythm in plural forms. The two aspects are interconnected and mutually dependent.” (Introduction, Traditional Indian Theatre, multiple forms)

The challenge to the Western reader is a fact. Where we are trained to analyse through distinctions, differences and trying to overlook by organising our thinking into disciplines, sorting even the arts into boxes labelled theatre, dance, music and image/scenography separately, the Indian tradition invites us to look for other ways of understanding the arts.

In fact, understanding early western modernism as well as post modern styles and even post postmodern performing arts is helped or guided by the ways a scholar like Kapila Vatsyayan has been working. Typical enough, her writings in the 70’s and 80’s grew essential to students and scholars in the Western world in a time when the Beatles approached the Indian raga and distant cultures came close through the opinions against colonialism and post-colonial attitudes as the US war in Vietnam.

It might sound bizarre, but it is through studies on Indian performing arts that I learned how impossible the separation between dance and dramatic theatre is. In studies in kathakali and its variations, I learned how the dramatic expression is within the movement, and it made me turn back to the European theatre with a new look on European history of the stages, where, in fact theatre, dance and music was inseparable until the middle of the 19th century. A divorce took place between theatre and dance for some time, but the artists of modernism longed back to the great possibilities of cross-over-forms.

Time in the sense of continuity and diversity in the sense of multi-layers are Indian classical thinking, but also highly contemporary. You will find it in contemporary butoh dance from Japan as well as in Bollywood film, or yet another remake of Hamlet. The notion of ”time” on stage, time in re-telling both as a structure and as counting minutes and seconds open doors to the contemporary performing arts as well as music videos of the so called MTV-generation – already getting grey hair. Time when shown on a stage can be perceived as re-make of the time already passed, or in Indian classical dance as an elastic material, or as Kapila Vatsyayan puts it as a ”kinetic re-living of the frozen moment”. The Indian dramatic dance-theatre could easily focus on a time period, freeze it and make it as large as is interesting for the interpretation. A moment could last for hours, and it is possible to move freely within the story telling, go back and forth in a way that is as original as contemporary.

Europeans and Americans have repeatedly searched among Asian traditions looking for inspiration, ideas, material, forms, following an old pattern of importation of the treasures from the far East. Orientalism and exotism has flavoured the arts of the western world through centuries and it has to be noted in the writings of Kapila Vatsyayan that her analysis is cristal clear concerning colonialism, being colonialized and living in a post colonial era. She puts the colonial time into her vast scheme of multiple layers and the fact that there is not one tradition but traditions in India – which goes for any area of the globe.

“When India became a colony, the process of mutual influence and acculturation continued: while on the one hand, India was being politically conquered, its culture, or at least a curiosity for it, was also making inroads into the minds of the administrators and organizers representing the rulers. Many civil servants who came to India were brought up in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal-arts tradition of Europe; a spirit of inquiry and desire for intellectual adventure was engrained.” But she continues to point out that this ”must be understood in the proper perspective”, that is the English colonial power founded a new educational system and ”by the time India attained political independence, there was a very definite dichotomy between the institutions of traditional culture ….and the institutions of education.” (Some aspects of cultural policies in India, UNESCO 1972)



In this way Kapila Vatsyayan shows elegantly that despite that all Indians were forced to accept a foreign system of education, the culture in itself continued it’s life and formed a solid base for the new independent Indian nation. Diversity and multi-layer was all the time a principle of understanding, which served as a resistance of mind and a reservoir tank for times to come.

In the decades of the 20th century when globalisation and multi-culturalism was highly influential on the stages of the western world her clear analysis and insightful understanding of the Indian tradition enlighten the way to true exchange avoiding ”cultural tourism”.

The continuity of the Indian philosophy makes the notions of classic and modern melt together. It creates a perspective of very long lines, and of something very precious in our time: tolerance. When describinghe many layers of Indian culture Kapila Vatsyayan does not structure hierarchies, she puts folklore and popular trtraditions long elaborate and refined forms and discuss cultural variations and regional traditions with the same energy and values. Tolerance and equality, freedom and colourful multitude are values between the lines of the many books and studies of Kapila Vatsyayan.

The Thalia prize of IATC is a young one, and we would like it to be given to someone who made a change to us, the critics. Someone who made critics or theatre goers in the world learn something new and guide us all to a better understanding of the performing arts, their tradition and to what extent they are parts of global exchange and patterns. Indeed, Kapila Vatsyayan made such a change. Her importance in India is deep and wide, but to the world outside the subcontinent she has described the richness of her tradition in such a precise way that it put our own tradition in a new context. To be able to present her as our forth Thalia prize laureate is a great joy and a true proof of the fruitfulness in a global work.


Margareta Sörenson

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