Kapila Vatsyayan was a civilisational voice in post-independent India - she embodied a deep understanding of tradition and an openness to modernity in her vision and her work. She was one of the very few scholars who could understand and highlight the continuum between the two.
Her scholarship covered the Indian traditions of scholarship as well as international Indological traditions. Again, this was very rare - more often than not you have scholars who understand one or the other. She was able to combine them in creative and imaginative ways.
The other aspect about Kapila ji’s scholarship was that it was not dry and academic in nature; instead it was deeply rooted in creativity. She had trained in classical dance from some of the best gurus of her time, such as Achchhan Maharaj in Kathak and Guru Amobi Singh in Manipuri nritya. One could say that having experienced aesthetic pleasure or Rasa she imbued her scholarship with it as well.
Having done her PhD on dance and sculpture and their interrelationship in the Indian tradition, she understood and highlighted the interdependence of different art contexts and tried to see the classical, folk and contemporary as equally valid manifestations of creativity and imagination. Through her scholarship, she questioned and problematised the dichotomies between the classical, folk and modern by the ‘modern’ intervention of the West in India.
One is reminded of what she said about the inter-relationship of the arts: "Art in India was never dissociated from other aspects of life or from other disciplines. This is evident from the literary and the archaeological evidence throughout the history of India. The continuity could be maintained only because the tradition itself had an in-built paradigm of facilitating change, constantly adjusting itself to a contemporaneity of time and place while adhering to certain underlying principles which were perennial and immutable...
Any discussion on the inter-relationship of the Indian arts at the level of theory or praxis is meaningful only if we realise that all the Indian arts are as if the myriad petals of a single flower. Each petal is clearly definable, has autonomy in shape and form, but has life and vitality only as part of a ‘whole’...."
Apart from being a scholar and a creative person in her own right, Kapila ji was unusually involved in the building of major cultural institutions. Her journey in the institutional world of culture covered more than half a century. She joined the ministry of education as an assistant educational advisor (at the under-secretary level in the 1950s) and went on to become the ‘Secretary of the Arts’ sometime in the early 1990s. It was a position specially created for her in connection with the establishment of the IGNCA. Apart from this Kapila ji was instrumental in establishing the key national Akademies, the National School of Drama, Centre of Higher Tibetan Studies, Council for Cultural Resource Training (CCRT), and the Asian Centre at the Indian International Centre.
Kapila ji was a person of strong will equally in her likes and dislikes. She fought her way through because a scholar or a creative artist in bureaucratic positions often faces a lot of prejudice and difficulty apart from undesirable political pressures. It is to her credit that Kapila ji retained her position and commanded widespread respect which cut across political and bureaucratic structures. She was one of the very few civil servants who personally knew many litterateurs, artists, musicians and scholars of her time. In other words, she was deeply engaged with the real people and issues relevant in the field of culture.
She also contributed her efforts towards strengthening and revitalising the element of culture in the education system. For instance, CCRT was aimed at training teachers in culture, and they were expected to put that training to good use in their teaching. Kapila ji did not want the younger generations to be disinherited from the vitality of Indian culture.
During her time at the IGNCA, unfortunately, the institution was somewhat opaque about its activities, but nevertheless accomplished a great deal in scholarship. Kapila ji started a series of publications titled Kala mool shastra (foundational texts on aesthetics in India.) Similarly, she promoted a project of retranslating Tibetan versions of Sanskrit texts which had been lost in India at the Institute of higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi.. She was a noteworthy presence in the international arena of culture such as UNESCO and other organisations.
Kapila ji had a wide network of contacts in the intellectual and arts fraternity in India and abroad. Her authorised biography mentioned nearly 2000 names in about 400 pages. It was a ‘Who's Who’ of culture of her times. It was rare for a person to have such contacts even though she spent a large part of her life as a civil servant. It was and still is difficult to come across a public functionary who could combine deep scholarship with practical projects and policy. A voracious reader, she tried to acquaint herself with the latest ideas in visual and performing arts, philosophy and archaeology. Her critical writings on dance, sculpture, Sanskrit classics and modern Indian art embody a robust and rigorous mind with a deep sensitivity for the Indian integration of the sensuous and the spiritual. In the later part of her life she was striving to revitalise the age old civilizational, aesthetic and creative links of India with Asia. For her the key was to reconnect across the vast fragmentation history had brought about. In many ways Kapila ji confronted linear histories and divisive politics with culture. For her, culture was a supreme human invention with inexhaustible value.
Kapila ji was deeply rooted in tradition and scholarship and open to modernity and contemporary creativity. She never gave up her lifelong mission to reimagine India’s civilisational enterprise. She highlighted the plurality and contextual significance of the Indian mind, insisting not only on the uniqueness of the Indian vision, but also on its innate plurality.