KAPILA VATSYAYAN – 1928-2020: The Mordant Muse of Sarkari Culture
While posthumously acknowledging the range of her catholic learning, scholarly contributions and passion for research, a certain intellectual rigour needs to be applied to ask some basic questions like, ‘what went wrong under her watch’? What was the inner flaw, the inner contradiction, the lethal bug that chewed up the innards of the Indian cultural project and rendered it infructuous?
The epiphanic nature of media tributes to Kapila Vatsyayan, who passed away last week, opens one’s eyes to the pervasive blindness that seems to afflict us on questions of culture. Journalists, critics, scholars, artists, eminent cultural figures have all rolled the drums, doffed their hats and penned purple prose in praise of someone who, in fact, played a problematic role for decades in Indian cultural bureaucracy.
Kapila, among the last of the Nehru-era cultural administrators, was an active exponent and, perhaps, the very epitome of the calamitous confusion that has existed in the official Indian State regarding the nature of this mysterious, intangible vapour called ‘Indian culture’ – the confusion over which the new Indian State purposefully proceeded to hammer into being the idea of a single template for culture in the sub-continent, in the same manner that it went about muscularly forging a geographic unity. While, in the political sphere, the tendency to break free has been constant over the past seven decades with many a ‘million mutinies’, the road-rolling effect has flattened the cultural domain, inflicting fatal injuries to myriad autonomous entities.
Of course, Kapila Vatsyayan cannot be singled out in this project of weaponization of culture to artificially concoct the glue that was expected to hold the nation together. However, her theoretical framework of the cultural matrix being a giant blender, pulping into one bubbly soup the ‘little traditions’ and the ‘great traditions’, effectively proposed an easy, impertinent homogenizing where none existed. It effectively served the cunning purpose of propagating the – now scary – slogan of ‘unity in diversity’. In the absence of any coherent ‘cultural policy’, this was the cannibalising mantra, whose inherent violence is only too evident now.
Despite her scholarship, acumen and experience, Kapila Vatsyayan, along with V. Raghavan and Pupul Jayakar, was, perhaps, amongst the longest post-Independence perpetrators of this confusion. Agents of a tendency which could, perhaps, be traced to the celebrated early 20thcentury historian and savant Ananda Coomaraswamy, these proponents of ‘national culture’ put the entire might of their knowledge, scholarship and experience behind asserting the unitary nature of Indian culture – contrary to the lived reality of its radical multiplicity and multi-centeredness and even multi-nationality.
Coomaraswamy had assigned centrality to ‘culture’ in his concept of nationalism and had argued that the idea of a nation primarily emerges from the idea of a ‘cultural base’, which is a prerequisite for its existence. As he colourfully said, ‘A nation is made of artists and poets, not by traders and politicians’. It was he who initiated the devastating idea of various cultural streams getting constituted into a single entity to make a nation. Some hundred years later, we now realise what a colossal colonising idea this has turned out to be, with the single entity draining and sucking the sustenance out of the plenitude of rivulets that flowed into it.
The confusion over what constitutes ‘Indian culture’ which began from the late 19th century, when the national movement picked up momentum, carried over into the Independence era, with the confusion only getting further sharpened. This is amply evident in the nature of the cultural institutions and bodies established in that first heady flush – the three Akademis, centralised museums, art galleries, drama school, film school, crafts centres and research bodies – all of which are today in a state of utter collapse and irrelevance. Like that earlier pandemic, the ‘mad cow disease’, these institutions too have comprehensively ended up swallowing their own entrails. And ‘Indian culture’ now exhibits a marauding tooth and claw.
Kapila Vatsyayan was like a foundational figure in many of the above failed projects which sought to aggressively subdue autonomy and diversity. While posthumously acknowledging the range of her catholic learning, scholarly contributions and passion for research, a certain intellectual rigour needs to be applied to ask some basic questions like, ‘what went wrong under her watch’? What was the inner flaw, the inner contradiction, the lethal bug that chewed up the innards of the Indian cultural project and rendered it infructuous? It calls for honesty, as much as clarity – both of which are in lamentable short supply in that self-delusional, make-believe world, evoked with a lump in the throat, called ‘our great Indian culture’.
My engagement with Kapila and her work spanned over four decades. We were together at several fora on arts and aesthetics and she was ever the gracious senior scholar, sharply polemical, yet casting an indulgent eye on one’s conceptual transgressions. In later years she was wont to liberally use the personal pronoun and had the fascinating habit of retrospectively inscribing herself into every significant moment in the country’s post-1947 cultural timeline, disingenuously claiming responsibility for a wide range of artistic revivals and restorations – from classical dance to heritage projects to textile and crafts traditions to cultural scholarship. She held the leash tightly on several fronts, even as she benefitted from collaborating with sparkling colleagues much younger to her like Pria Devi and Ranesh Ray, with whom she did landmark exhibitions for the IGNCA, like Kham (Space), Aakara (Form) and Kal (Time).
Even from our early days of exchange, I had been wary of her sarkari sensibility. Many of her pronouncements had the resonance of a circular from Shastri Bhavan. The idea of ‘official culture’ held, for me, a certain dread. I had heard of Sarojini Naidu exclaiming, ‘A Ministry of Culture! God forbid’! Some years ago, when scholar and administrator Dr. Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty, who headed the National Museum and the Lalit Kala Akademi during the last decade, said that ‘the day a Department of Culture was invented, culture was on the way to extinction’, one broadly agreed. Back in 1976, while collaborating on the writing of a review of Kapila’s stunningly original new book, ‘Traditions of Indian Folk Dance’, it was dismaying to find her fawning over Mrs. Indira Gandhi (the Emergency was at its peak), who was profusely eulogised in the Preface for facilitating the research by her annual assembling of folk dance groups from around the country, at the Talkatora Gardens in Delhi, in preparation for the Republic Day Parade. It came as a shock to read a scholar of Kapila’s calibre say that but for this centralised assemblage of ‘folk’ artists, ‘it would be impossible to comprehend these multiple traditions in their totality, in one intense experience’. She did not take kindly to a scoffing reference to this in our review in the Times – that at the January 26 military parade and pageant, the function and meaning of these diverse and distinct tribal and folk dances inevitably changes from local ceremonies to a national ceremony, from ritual to regimentation.
Forty years later, in 2016, I was invited to write a Preface to Kapila’s ‘Arts of the Kerala Kshetram’, a 1986 treatise, originally published by the Government Sanskrit College, Tripunithura, which the IGNCA was now republishing. After working on the text for a few days, I thought it prudent to decline the invitation. However, I did participate later in the panel discussion during the launch of the book, where Kapila was warm enough to accept a critique I was offering.
I had said that in the best of vyanga and prahasana (humour and satire) traditions of the performing arts of Kerala, the IGNCA requesting me to write the Preface to Kapila’s book was the visual equivalent of a donkey being commandeered to lead a grand caparisoned elephant, in full festive regalia, its golden nettipattom on the forehead shimmering like a hundred suns. I claim no knowledge of the field other than the mundane and the quotidian – a product purely of informed empiricism. In keeping with the prahasana tradition, this donkey will strut and gambol and bray a bit – and will even, perhaps, attempt a kick. But these have to be taken in the spirit of a critical vidushaka whose job is to provide variant interpretations, even while endorsing the part played by the hero.
Basically, I was taking issue with Kapila’s proposition that ‘from the dawn of history’, Kerala has had cultural traditions which are both pan-Indian and distinctive and that, together, ‘they represent the dynamics of Indian cultural patterns’. Her attempt at marrying the local bhagawati and bhuta cults related to feminine energies, animism, trance and magic with Vedic, Sanskritized, patriarchal imports was astounding for the ease with which it was accepted in Kerala as well as outside. It was this attempt at forcibly suturing together distinct and autonomous identities into a grand national narrative ‘from the dawn of time’ that was Kapila’s running theme in most of her work.
If pre-Independence, regional and local cultures were of interest for their ‘exotic strangeness’, post-Independence the impulse was clearly for integration, nay homogenization. Within this, Kapila’s personal quest was for locating and identifying ‘bridges’ between forms and traditions which was, in effect, a political program. She even pitched the arts of a region like Kerala, largely unfamiliar to a pre-colonial India, as part of a single whole in the ‘Indian tradition’.
In effect, this was a papering over of real divisions and differences – in this case of some of the most vile and offensive practices perpetuating caste hierarchies. The ‘bridge’ here was, really, a barrier. And culture, rather than inclusive, was rabidly exclusive. The proposition, therefore, of Indian tradition as a ‘organic whole’ or ‘emanating from a unified centre’ or of an all-accommodating single undifferentiated aesthetic was odious, as much an attempt to obfuscate. As a cultural historian, Kapila made no attempt to distinguish between, what Romila Thapar has so illuminatingly termed ‘embedded’ and ‘embodied’ histories.
Kapila’s rather facile binary of the ‘little’ and ‘great’ traditions of the sub-continent, forever holding hands and dancing a consensual jig is just a bit off key. The ‘great’ tradition is almost always identified as Vedic, Brahminical and Sanskritic. One wonders why, considering it was the practice of so few people. The very term ‘great’ succeeds in masking the hegemonic character of culture, concealing the objective conditions of oppression within it.
The ‘little’ traditions, on the other hand, do not represent any one thing, but are an immensely variegated set of beliefs, mores and practices which, apart from their sheer heterogeneity, also betoken culture as a space for resistance. These are, in fact, forms from the social and political margins that are battling the cannibalising tendencies of the dominant forces. But a cultural nationalist, like Kapila, romanticised and mystified this tension as a great carnival of mutuality.
Among the first things the State does when it invades ‘culture’ and the ‘arts’ is to self-consciously erase the idea of conflict within it. Its task, then, is to validate all expression routed through it as a legitimation of its homogenizing tendencies, claiming the sanction to deny difference and neutralise dissent through co-option. Almost all of Kapila’s one score or more books, particularly those on dance, as well as her impressive body of published academic papers perform this task of inventing a national and connected narrative for the arts which has, unfortunately been uncritically absorbed by facile international scholarship emanating from the Dance Studies departments in Western universities. The fact that in all these years, no challenge has been posed to Kapila’s sarkari formulation of culture, merely shows how little and how superficially we engage with the question here.
And yet, Kapila’s work has to be categorised as pioneering and intellectually challenging. Her assimilative powers enabled her time and again to majestically soar over the given academic field and provide critical insights which only someone who is a master of her material could have done. In the context of Kerala, her repeated field trips there and research interventions in forms like kathakali, kudiyttam, theyyam or krishnattam and her contributions to massive Vedic rituals like the agni-chayanam at Panjal in 1976 or the athiratra yajna, also at Panjal in 1984, made her a much loved figure in that state. No wonder kudiyattam exponent and teacher G. Venu chose to name his own daughter Kapila, who now has emerged as a formidable kudiyattam performer in her own right.
The cultural discourse in India, however, awaits another Kapila who will effectively dismantle the strangulating theoretical edifice created by this mordant muse of sarkari culture.