The intellectual trajectory of a cultural czarina

The intellectual trajectory of a cultural czarina

By PANKAJ VOHRA | | 27 June, 2015
Kapila Vatsyayan.
Jyoti Sabharwal’s biography of Kapila Vatsayayan is a well-researched, articulate account of one of our most accomplished scholars and cultural ambassadors, writes Pankaj Vohra.
Jyoti Sabharwal
Stellar Publishers
Pages: 550
Price: Rs 895

The genre of biography, autobiography or a memoir, by and large, dwindles into being a hagiography, an exercise in vanity or the salacious to create sensation. This is where Afloat a Lotus Leaf, a biography of Kapila Vatsyayan penned by celebrity biographer-publisher Jyoti Sabharwal defies all these stereotypes.

Feted nationally and internationally with a litany of honours as a scholar-administrator and builder of institutions, Vatsyayan's personal history commingles with the history of post-independence India. The tapestry of this tale unfolds dexterously and dispassionately without being in awe of the subject. More so, as Vatsyayan told her biographer, who chased her for many years, "There never has been any propelling desire for presentation of the persona." In this game of "catch me if you can", perhaps they matched each other's tenacity, which resulted in this voluminous tome that would find a place on the shelves of administrators, diplomats, educationists, scholars and creative artists.

Born in an era of eclectic minds, she was mentored as much by the vibrancy of the political and intellectual discourse at her parental home, as by the strident women that included her mother Satyawati, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Aruna Asaf Ali and Rukmini Arundale among others. Tutored by titans like Sir Maurice Gwyer, the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University who also taught Shakespeare, she coveted the Barbour Fellowship after accomplishing her Masters and being prodded by one of her professors in Hindu College, who told her bluntly, "This is all very well, Kapila. But now you have to either go to England or the United States. Nobody is going to look at you unless you've a foreign degree, even if it is to get a PhD in boot polishing. Otherwise, you would not be recognized or your work legitimized."

This engaging academic and cultural experience in the United States of late 1940s, where she not only encountered the leading lights of modern dance, be it Juana de Laban or Martha Graham, adding to her repertoire having been a shagird of the Kathak maestro Achhan Maharaj, but also the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Heinrich Robert Zimmer made her strongly aware that she was grossly unaware of the rich cultural heritage of the country of her birth. She abandoned the fellowship and left her doctorate in Art Education midway to quench this insatiable desire to discover the multiple streams of Indian tradition. Well into the new millennium, this octogenarian is still relentlessly continuing her search as the Chairperson of India International Centre Asia Project.

She abandoned the fellowship and left her doctorate in Art Education midway to quench this insatiable desire to discover the multiple streams of Indian tradition. Well into the new millennium, this octogenarian is still relentlessly continuing her search as the Chairperson of India International Centre Asia Project.  

From teaching at Miranda House as the first batch of the faculty to making forays into southern India delving deeper into artistic traditions, and eventually enrolling for a doctorate at Banaras Hindu University under the tutelage of unparalleled scholar Acharya Vasudeva Sharan Agrawala, makes for a fascinating narration. A repository of scholarly stimulation, Banaras brought her to the powerhouse of knowledge, where she imbibed invaluable lessons in art, architecture, archaeology, aesthetics, literature, philosophy and much else.

Dropcap OnVatsyayan took a leap of faith and joined the central advisory cadre in the Ministry of Education, for her peer group was anxious that there ought to be a custodian and spokesperson for Indian culture and Indian languages. They persisted and abrogated her reluctance to enter the portals of North Block and become a part of the factotum. What followed was the perpetual conflict between the set of advisors and the IAS lobby, but Vatsyayan had the great fortune of working in close proximity of three stalwarts — Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr S Radhakrishnan. It was Pt Nehru who handpicked Vatsyayan to engage the students and teachers of Delhi University to work on the very first cultural pageant for the Republic Day Parade in 1951, and thereafter, go scouting in the inner recesses of the country to bring troupes of folk dancers and educate the "educated Indians" about the immense cultural diversity of this wondrous nation. Vatsyayan's incisive observations on the torn fabric of the Northeast makes for compulsive reading, as she traversed the tribal India.

Given Maulana Sahab's vision of education, his deep commitment to heritage, setting-up the three Akademies, the National Museum, and most significantly, establishing the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), she learnt great lessons in "soft diplomacy" — that how "intra-cultural dialogues" can draw nation-states together and bring civilizations closer irrespective of political equations. From East Europe to East, West and Southeast Asia, as a cultural ambassador, she not only signed scores of treaties and cultural exchange programmes, but persevered tirelessly to get Indian manuscripts from the world over that culminated at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

Before Vatsyayan fought her battles at the IGNCA that remained shrouded in controversy (the inside story is quite revelatory as the Cabinet Secretary told her, "There is a chair and table under the staircase in the Cabinet Secretariat, you can sit there."), she had combated the closure of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library as also the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla in the late 70s during the Janata regime. Both these institutions were envisaged by President Dr S Radhakrishnan and he had zeroed in on Vatsyayan to be involved at the embryonic stages. The concluding chapter, Institutions Outlast the Individuals, lends terrific insight on the autonomy and politicization of institutions. And her six-decade intense experience tells her that "institutions should not be named after the political leaders."

Anecdotal and lucid, this book is a publishing coup of sorts, as Sabharwal has succeeded in breaking the silence of one of the most celebrated but reclusive scholars of modern India, who kept India's cultural flag flying around the world, and even honoured by UNESCO with three medals.

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