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Kapila Vatsyayan - My lifetime mentor

September 23, 2020

To many, this tribute may appear to be highly egocentric, for which I need be amply excused, since I am helpless. Kapilaji was always aglow in my life's firmament and I always basked in her reflected glory. On the whole, I had the most profound regard for her deep erudition in Indian art and culture. In turn, I felt she had a sneaking appreciation of my abiding cross-disciplinary interest in the sciences and the arts. How I perceived this, I would come to, a little later.

Kapila Vatsyayan with the Dalai Lama

It began in 1975. I was already Dy. Secretary, Min. of Defence in 1968, when I left India as a Commonwealth Scholar and I had then returned with a Ph. D. in "IT and Management" under my belt from Manchester. I was duly made Adviser (Information Systems), Min. of Industry, but I began seriously wondering where I would go in my civil service from there. Tata Steel jumped into the fray and offered me a plum technical position. I was in a dilemma - should I leave the lifelong security in the services and join the fiercely competitive private sector? I escaped to - an unlikely place -- the Himalayas to contemplate and sought the advice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I sought and got - absolutely unexpectedly - an immediate "holy audience", provided I could climb the steep hillside from the Dharamsala Tourist Lodge to his hilltop abode, to keep the appointment in time. I did and received his blessing with a beatific smile, "I shall pray for you." I returned and took the plunge.

Kapilaji was aware of my venture and shortly, I received her summons. She had moved to set up the new Department of Arts (presumably as its Secretary) and could I meet her in her new office - a desolate Vigyan Bhavan Annexe? Over a cup of steaming coffee, she asked me to join her as Joint Secretary. I was a callow young man of 41 then and asked if she could make me Additional Secretary, instead. She laughed out to say, "I am myself an Additional Secretary!" I returned to Jamshedpur.

15 years and four private sector stints (Tata Steel, Administrative Staff College of India, Computronics India and All India Management Association) later, I thought enough was enough and in 1990, I began seriously to assist ICCR with taking courses for IFS Probationers and foreign diplomats on Indian heritage as well as lecturing abroad under its aegis. It was then that I slapped together my fledgling volume on "Indian Performing Arts" (Vikas Publishing) and Kapilaji gave it an erudite Introduction, particularly singling out a concrete electronic media plan of mine - for enhancing the aspects of first learning, performance and audience sensitization in the performing arts -- for recommendation to the authorities. As usual, nothing came out of it. In addition, my good friend R K Laxman, although initially unwilling to dabble in the performing arts, eventually illustrated my book with a score of delightful cartoons. The book was launched at the IIC by Vikas and Kapilaji did us the honour. The volume went through many editions and reprints, making a minor printing history.

Kapilaji had in 1985 founded her dream institution, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). I would always remember at the Janpath lawns on November 19, the late PM's birthday, the memorable event: consecrating with sacred waters, stones and seeds belonging to holy rivers, mountains and trees -- five each, brought from all over the subcontinent. The divisions - lovingly named Kala Nidhi, Kala Kosha, Kala Darshana, Jana Pada Sampada and Sutradhara - were nurtured by her to fit into their designated roles. As soon as I broke out of steady jobs, she summoned me - revealing, at last, her faith in me -- in 1991 to become National Project Director under UNDP to prepare Project Document (PD) and, shorter, Project Formulation Framework (PFF) towards documentation and computerization of Indian art and culture, for justifying a massive UNDP grant to set up Cultural Informatics Laboratory (CIL) at IGNCA.

Over next two years, I had two software stalwarts from NIC in Delhi and NCST in Mumbai with me as National Project Coordinators, set up office at the Vigyan Bhavan Annexe, visited numerous places - including Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur and China's First Army Project in Boston, USA, and prepared the UN documents under Kapilaji's direct care. Indeed, Kapilaji took over herself as National Project Director and appointed her Jt. Secretary as National Project Director, after my term was over. Today, CIL not merely holds the cultural archives of IGNCA, but also provides the nucleus for the entire country's National Cultural Audio-Visual Archives (NCAA) with 29 member archives of our land - from Kalaksetra in the south to ICCR, CCRT, NSD and all the national Akademis in the north; from Film Archives of India and NCPA in the west to Natya Shodh Sanstha in the east.

By the time the above project was getting completed, Ranjit Makkuni of XEROX, Palo Alto, USA, had begun his documentation work on the 14th century Sanskrit classic Gita Govinda by Jayadeva, comprising music, dance, paintings, sculpture, architecture and above all, massive interview sessions with Kapilaji, sitting on IGNCA'S verdure green meadows under tree-shades. Project or no, I enthusiastically joined forces with Ranjit, assisting him any which way!

Let me add that Jayadeva and his Gita Govinda were a great medieval phenomenon, taking off from the early Vaishnavism and travelling all over the country and beyond. Its 12 Sargas (cantos), 24 Prabandhas (songs) and 72 verses remained totally unaltered unvaried in their genre -- unlike Ramayana, which also travelled far and wide, but underwent varied mutations. Gita Govinda's unchanged text is extant in 3,500 manuscripts discovered so far, with 40 different commentaries and illustrated in 4,300 miniature paintings. Its dramatic tone, written in superb lyrics with far ranging nuances and resonances, remain unaltered in India's rich heritage.

Gita Govinda was a lifelong vocation with Kapilaji for being linked with the great miniature painting tradition of India. Her eight monographs, e.g., Jaur Gita-Govinda, Bundi Gita-Govinda, Mewari Gita-Govinda, Assamiya Gita-Govinda, Nepal Gita-Govinda etc., ending with the Darbhanga Gita-Govinda, were scholarly epitomes where she examined assiduously the relationship of the text and the visual image. The Darbhanga Gita-Govinda was a set belonging to the 18th century, exemplifying both the continuity and changes which take place over time in comprehending the text as also its visual representation. Through her monographs on Gita Govinda, Kapilaji encompassed the pictorial journey of Gita Govinda over a period of four centuries.

Kapilaji brought out succinctly to us, the reasons why Gita Govinda was adored and applauded through the ages and across the sub-continent. The pivotal character of Krishna here is neither of Harivamsha nor Bhagavata-purana, of the pastoral being or a primal symbol of godhead with Gopis as his partners. Jayadeva's Krishna is a human being, a god in pain who grows from canto to canto throughout the 24 Prabandhas. Radha counterpoises him, now jealous, now distraught and despondent, and now trudging through the lonely path in her tryst. Jayadeva touches Krishna with the supreme human quality of remorse, who must suffer equally from the pangs of separation; whether outdoors or indoors, he and Radha are separate, repentant and yearning. Sakhi (companion) is the perfect go-between, to persuade and reprimand, to cement the eventually one-to-one relationship. In spite of her impetuosity, Radha is finally the lover's woman, in separation and in blissful union. It is this human drama, filled with sap, rich and sensuous, yet humane and endearing, that has an enduring quality. The drama, full of sensory perceptions, lasts through the dark and light to night, with the fragrance of spring blossoms and spikes of bush thorns.

Before long, she had these three votaries who fell under the charm of this great, little epic: Ranjit Makkuni (of XEROX, mentioned before), Pratapanand Jha, director of CIL, and me. Ranjit produced the most comprehensive audio-visual documentation on Gita Govinda (before he left for doing similar exemplary work on Varanasi and still later, on Mahatma Gandhi). Pratapanand proceeded to work directly under Kapilaji's guidance, and completed a most authentic set of multi-media VCDs on Gita Govinda - released by Kapilaji in a scintillating function, where I was happily present. As regards self, I wrote an academic paper on "Gita Govinda: the Unifying Bond of India" for a national seminar by the Asiatic Society located in Kolkata and had the privilege of having it approved by Kapilaji. [I had done some more work on Gita Govinda, which I would come to at the end of this tribute.]

Incidentally, when I was invited to give an audio-visual lecture at the IGNCA's series of weekly seminars on "Renaissance Mind", Kapilaji was quite concerned about what I proposed to cover. On being assured about my contents, she not merely attended my presentation, but also invited Dr. Lokesh Chandra and Dr. Karan Singh to attend. These studies as well as my earlier paper on Gita Govinda are now part of my major book ‘Luminous Harmony - Indian Art and Culture" (Niyogi Books). This is just to show how meticulous Kapilaji was even for someone else's lecture!

Kapilaji was phenomenally knowledgeable on Indian classical dance, as her many books showed. Having learnt Manipuri early in life, she used to confide that she practiced this form - apart from her Yoga routine - every morning in the privacy of her home. Her abundant affection for her Guru-bhai, Pt Birju Maharaj, was also there for all to see, because of their common Guru, Pt. Acchan Maharaj, father of Birju Maharaj. In public, Kapilaji was generally impatient with people displaying shallow knowledge of classical arts; in private, she was devastating. Once she quipped about a dance historian, "I will take his pxxxx down, what does he know?" About another scholar, she taunted, "What he knows about Odissi dance can be written on the back of a postage stamp!" In lighter moments, she could be a great mimic. Once chatting in the lobby outside the IIC auditorium, she imitated the walk of a former Prime Minister between the two entry doors of IIC, to show what she learnt from the illustrious person about "putting up a stiff upper lip" and treating a particularly undesirable chap "like a piece of furniture". It was hilarious!

In the new millennial years, she was increasingly unavailable in the IGNCA complex and only came occasionally to supervise how IGNCA was planning to preserve what she had bequeathed to it from her huge collection of books and manuscripts. This I realized when I became a Tagore Research Scholar in 2012-14 under Min. of Culture, to work on "metadata management" (technically, indexing and cataloguing) of the vast audio-visual cultural archives of IGNCA. This same metadata approach has been accepted as the foundation of comprehensive NCAA. By then, she had her new office - heading an IIC-Asia mega cultural project - next to the IIC reception. I met her there, for instance, to present her a seminal work "Indian Puppets" by the puppet scholar Sampa Ghosh (in collaboration with me, Abhinav Publications), rated very high by UNIMA (the world body of puppeteers).

My last encounter with Kapilaji, before I moved to Kolkata from Delhi (for health reasons), was at an IIC programme, where she came to sit beside me in the audience. I sought her blessings and with an indulgent smile, she gave me her best wishes. Before my departure from Delhi, I had completed an English-verse translation of Gita Govinda and handed over to the publishers. Finally, the book - illustrated by some 50 exquisite miniature paintings from Rajasthan and Orissa - is coming out from IGNCCA in next few months. That I would not be able to personally present her the book -- already dedicated to her -- will remain a matter of my lifelong regret.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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