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by Uttara Asha Coorlawala - New Delhi, January 12, 2000

Jun 2001

("An earlier version of this article appeared in Dance Research Journal Vol.32, No.1, July 2000")

UTTARA COORLAWALA: Your writing goes beyond Indian or Western models. Would you talk about influences on your writings?
KAPILA VATSYAYAN: You are kind, Uttara, but it is hard for me to analyze myself. I have been…… extraordinarily fortunate. My training began with the practice of dance, from Oriental dance to Kathak to Bharatanatyam and Manipuri. My concurrent training in English Literature at Delhi University provided critical apparatus. Although my academic disciplines were English Literature, Western Art and whatever we learned in pre-Independent India, I had to learn Sanskrit and Indian languages because of the (sic) family background (a reformist family, deeply rooted.). I was exposed to the best of English Literature, Sir Morris Goyer, Chief Justice of India was my tutor. Then after completing M.A (at Delhi University) I went to the United States on the Barbour Fellowship. It is a distinguished fellowship for Asian women based on the outcome of a written exam. That is how I got to Ann Arbour, Michigan, where apart from other courses, I look a course with Rudolf Laban's daughter Juana Labon. I also spent two summers in Colorado Springs, with Hanya Holm and Alwin Nikolais.

U.C. Would it be rude to ask you the dates?
KV: In 1948, 1949, Not at all rude. One is old enough to accept everything as it is.

UC: In 1948, 1949, to have studied Oriental dance and Kathak would have been unusual. Not many women at that time could have found teachers. People did not even know about the dance then. So how did you?
KV: This is another story. It goes back to the 1930s in Calcutta when my family was involved with the nationalist movement. In Bengal at this time there was what one called Oriental dance, analogous to the Bengal school of painting, very feminine, amorphous, lyrical. This was my first training. Then I got to Delhi. In the audience at a school performance where I danced was Nirmala Joshi, a lady who later became the secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and none other than Acchan Maharaj. I remember that, at age ten, I considered my dance on ardhanarishwara great choreography. It must have been absolutely silly. Acchan Maharaj called for me and Nirmala Joshi told me to touch his feet because he was a great Kathak dancer. He said to me 'Bahut accha naachi ho, lakin talim ki jaroorat hai' (You dance beautifully but you need training.) He suggested that I study with him. You must see this sociologically. The dance was coming out of the (royal) courts on the one hand and then my mother was telling my father to let me learn dancing. Imagine. He was appalled.

UC: I do understand.
KV: I attended a co-educational college where there were eleven girls to nearly a thousand boys and throughout my undergraduate and graduate education, I never mentioned that I danced. My dance practice was a totally separate life.

UC: You also studied other dance forms?
KV: In the summer breaks, I learned Bharatanatyam from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and later in Delhi from Rukmini Devi's disciple Lalitha of Kalakshetra. Then I invited Gura Amobi Singh (to come) from Manipur to Delhi and learned Manipuri dance with him. All this was post-Kathak, because by this time Acchan Maharaj had died. I went to Lucknow and fetched Birju here from his uncle's tutelage and established him in the dance school that we were running. I made him a master prima facie, when his was just nine years old.

UC: When you say you brought Lalitha and Birju Maharaj to Delhi, you provided them with a place to live and livelihood, so that you could study from them too?
KV: Yes, Yes I collected funds to pay for his trip. There was no Government of India and no grants of the sort available today. It was hard but very pleasant work.

UC: I get the feeling that these were very exciting times. People had faith?
KV: Absolutely right! We may have been foolish, we may have been ignorant, but we were idealistic to the core, devoted and dedicated to our concept of this great country that arrived in freedom. We had our role models, my mother and Kamaladevi Chatopadhyaya among others.

UC: To recapitulate, while you worked towards your M.A. degree, you studied Kathak, started Bharatanatyam, and were involved with running a dance school?
KV: Then I went to America where I was introduced to Laban's tools of movement analysis and Hanya Holm's movement system. The whole experience of modern dance via Hanya and Alwin Nikolais gave me that analytical approach. That was one of my richest experiences because it enabled me to know my body. Self - awareness.

UC: Different in India, where one does not want to know the body.
KV: Of course not! You just use your body, transcend your body a very different experience.

UC: Was it difficult?
KV: No, not difficult. I enjoyed every moment.

UC: People were open to you?
KV: Yes.

UC: Did you feel culturally isolated?
KV: No I have very good friends. If I had not had the experience in the United States with modern dance and literary studies, had it not been for the writings of Coomaraswamy who had just died in 1947 before I got there, were it not for these influences, I do not think I would be the person I am today. I read Coomaraswamy, Heinrich Zimmer and the parts of the Upanishads that my parents gave me. I acquired the two volumes of Stella Kramrisch's book The Hindu Temple which I did not understand and which I thought was a nice possession. I still have that 1946 edition.

America gave me the time, which it does even today, to ask questions both about myself as a body but also about myself as my culture. Being often called upon to speak here and there, I realized that despite my extensive education, my ignorance was abysmal. One day after doing my prerequisites for the PhD degree, I decided to return to India and give up my fellowship. I felt that I was ignorant about the culture to which I belonged. I had to know it. I also felt that if I wanted to go further in English literature and Western art (I have much love for that civilization) I would have to go to its language foundations in Greek and Latin. Then there was this dance thing that also called. So, all told, one autumn day outside the library in Michigan, I meditated upon it and surprised my parents by returning home. I returned with this sense of searching for identify and started traveling. I traveled from Madurai to Kanyakumari, to Palghat practically on foot and in buses. I got to the Kerala Kalamandalam.

UC: Did you do this alone?
KV: We were three returnees from school abroad together; one was F.R. Leavis' student (she has actually just retired from Cambridge as a professor of English) another from the Freud School of Psychoanalysis in London. Khajuraho was a profound head shaking, heart shaking experience.

We were very close friends, the three of us, but after seeing the sculptures at Khajuraho, we just could not look at each other! Yes, it shook us - it made us realize what our conditioning had been. Years later, after reading and writing, one realized that one had been conditioned by this whole business of the separation of the sacred and the secular, the body and the mind and so on. Nineteenth century India was very Victorian. We had not known what to make of the Khajuraho visual statement then, though later I realized it was integral to Indian mores.

Just as I had done a great performance before Acchan Maharaj when I was ten, this time I wrote a great book on movement and dance because I had seen the sculptures of dance everywhere. I was introduced to the scholar Vasudeva Sharan Agarwal - he has written about forty books on the history of Indian art, on India through the eyes of Panini, and so on. You must read some. He had become the head of the Archaeological department at Benares Hindu University. He accepted me as a special Ph.D Student. As a person returning from America, and as a woman, I faced great resentment. Here neither my degrees in English nor my American education were considered adequate preparation. I had to take a Sanskrit philological exam.

I did that and then got grounding in Indology and archaeology. He (Agarwal) would say 'Just read up the reports from 1905 to 1914. We will talk about it day after tomorrow'. I was taught how to look at manuscripts, primary sources, Whereas all my earlier training had been with secondary and tertiary sources, here manuscripts were literally thrown at me to decipher. 'Here are five thousand photographs in this trunk. Arrange and identify their contents'. He had a tub of photographs very different from the way we arrange things now with filing systems. He had bundles of manuscripts. He would say 'Pick up that seventh bundle on Marwari painting. Rearrange them in chronological order', or something like that, 'Here are some bundles of Rajasthani or Mughal paintings. They are mixed up. Please sort them out'.

UC: What excitement!
KV: I touched these manuscripts with my hands for years. That is how I know my primary material. I had the greatest Indian scholars to teach me. Rai Krishen Das, Motichandra, Hazari Prasad, Radhakumar, the top scholars of this country. If you did nothing but sit while they talked to each other, you imbibed the real flowing stream of Indian scholarship. It was at the end of this experience that I rewrote my thesis as 'Classical Indian Dance in Literature'… but I put that first enthusiastic book to the flames.

UC: Do you have a copy of this somewhere so I could know how you once thought?
KV: No. Nothing that Acchan Maharaj did was as harsh as what Vasudev Sharma did, though he was a great teacher. He would test you and argue for five days, but if you convinced him, he said 'I have been in the field for thirty years. Why has this not occurred to me?' He acknowledged our hard earned insights - and with such generosity. I did not go to Indology from the traditional Indology route. I did not go to modern dance from modern dance, but from tradition. I did not come to Indian dance by growing up with it as a family tradition. I think I got the essence of each of these traditions without being bound by the conventions of these traditions. I became an unbounded bounded person.

UC: You were forced into having a freedom of perception by not having belonged to any one of these traditional systems.
KV: Yes I belonged nowhere and I belonged everywhere.

UC: You were forced….
KV: Yes I was forced to create my own world and I had the negative capacity of entering into all these worlds.

UC: You stay informed about developments in dance scholarship. How do you keep on going?
KV: Being up-to-date is a matter of keeping your mind alert. I try to read everybody's writing. If you see my purse it is full of little chits to see this and that book. Sometimes I track them down in Delhi. If not here, then often during my teaching stints in the United States. This time, for example, when I was teaching in Santa Cruz, I bought a lot of books. Another opportunity, frankly, has been attending the CORD and World Dance Alliance conferences. At the moment I do not feel that I am at a level where I am not searching. I am very much on the road.

UC: What was it like for your generation? You were, one might say, making footprints in the snow, setting up precedents for my generation. Were you conscious of this, and of a need to be as comprehensive as you could be? This time, when a nation is new, is a very exciting thought for me.
KV: I did exactly what I wanted to do. I did nothing because of any great mission. Things came. I wanted to explore. I got into this Geeta Govinda study and am still in it. I have done nothing to feel that I carry any burden.

UC: Do you have any specific examples of how your writing, your knowledge, your presence in Delhi and closeness to ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) might have informed perceptions and policies of Indian dance? Do you have any memories of events that might reflect this? When Narayana Menon spoke of sending Balasaraswati to the Edinburgh Festival, he spoke of how it changed people's concepts of Indian dance, and how he had fought to ensure that she was selected and sent.
KV: Now when I look back, I recall great moments and moments of regret. The moment of success was also the moment when Bala was picked up by the West. History will question whether that was good or bad. Similarly I recall the Kathakali performances of Ramana Kutty, Krishna Kutty in Russia…. I do not know if what has happened to Kathakali today was a step in the right or wrong direction. I have several questions like that. These are contextual arts. They are decontextualized, exposed to market forces, presented to larger audiences where communication is not taking place. While the artist gets success - and this is very good - what happens to the art is a big challenge. We need to address what has been done by this overexposing of dance to uninitiated audiences. It is the presented surface body that we are looking at, not the experienced body. The attitude of 'how I will be seen by you' makes for a completely different aesthetic experience than a concern with experience and communication.

UC: I am really glad you brought this up.
KV: What we have not understood is that while the 'Classical' or what I call the 'neoclassical' dance styles are extremely popular, and when everyone is saying Wah! Wah! and so on, let us remember the crises we are going through. We are with the form of these dances, but we are not even in the dynamics of the movement at the technique level, in most cases. Some of us are extremely skilled but imbuing the dance with prana (flow) is a difficult task.

UC: Can you recall some other bittersweet moments?
KV: Uttara, another time. I must stop now.

UC:Thank you. You have given generously and… I am being greedy here.

[This interview took place amid several phone calls to various government officials, including one protesting against a television program aired the same morning. Kapila was contemplating resigning from her position as Academic Director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) to protest government interference in autonomous institutions of culture]

* In 1953 the Sangeet Natak Akademi was set up and funded by the Government of India as an autonomous institution to promote performance, research and creativity in sangeet or dance and music and nataka (drama).

* Achhan Maharaj (1883-1947) was a legendary performer and teacher of the Lucknow gharana (tradition, lineage) of Kathak Dance.

* Ardhanarishwara is a manifestation of Shiva in which his right half is mole and his left half is in the female form of his wife Parvati.

* Birju Maharaj is India's leading exponent of the Lucknow lineage of Kathak Dance and son of Acchan Maharaj.

* Kamaladevi Chhatapadhyaya (1903-1988) was a political activist from a young age. She was founder member of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and involved similarly with other institutions for the arts.

* Kerala Kalamandalam is the name of an institution in Kerala (west coast of south India) where Kathakali, (a dance-drama form performed traditionally by males) is taught.

* The rock-covered temple at Khajuraho (c.1000 A.D) is famous for its erotic sculptures.

* The Indian Council for Cultural Relations is a branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that deals with projecting India's culture abroad and also the main sponsor within India of state-subsidized performing troupes from abroad.

* Narayan Menon, Ph.D was known for his expertise in both Indian and western classical music. He served on several international committees on music studies, including two terms as President of the UNESCO Council on Asian Music, the Music Council.

Kapila Vatsyayan
D-1/23 Sathya Marg
New Delhi 110021
Ph: (011) - 670674

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