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In Memoriam: Kapila Vatsyayan: IATC’s Thalia Prize Laureate in 2012

By Margareta Sörenson

President, IATC

On September16th 2020 Kapila Vatsyayan passed away, the fourth awardee of the IATC Thalia Prize. In her writings on Indian dance and theatre, she opened the treasures of her national traditions, a perfect example of the Thalia goals to celebrate those whose research and writings have made a change to performance criticism. The prize was awarded at the 25th congress of the IATC in Warsaw, Poland.  Legally blind at that time and unable to travel, she was personally given the award at a special ceremony in New Delhi some weeks later.

It would be no exaggeration to call Mme. Vatsyayan the world’s finest contemporary guide to Indian drama, dance and stage aesthetics. The author of numerous books and recognized internationally as a scholar, she often referred to herself simply as a dancer.  In addition to her performance scholarship, she was also a highly respected government minister and director of the Indira Gandhi Centre of the Arts.

Mme. Vatsyayan learned dance early and had training in Kathak from the north of India, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali from the south and other classical forms as well as folk dance, and tribal dance traditions. The multi-layeredness of these traditions along with the country’s multitude of forms was a consistent subject for her clear and beautiful style of writing.  What was sometimes called cross-over by others, she took seriously on its own articulating a consistent pattern of rhythmical structures, opposed movements and dynamic aesthetic contradictions firmly rooted within India’s vast performance tradition.

“At one level,” she said, there is “the unified equilibrium, the still-centre, and at other, the continual play of energy and rhythm in plural forms. The two aspects are interconnected and mutually dependent.”

For the non-Indian reader, her guidance to and insights about Indian tradition served as an eye-opening understanding of contemporary and postmodern drama and dance: undefined space and time articulated as frozen moments in space, fragmentized narration, image-carrying performance, living paintings, sculpture in movement.

She took a particular interest in the close relationship between the performing arts and Art in the larger sense, as she noted in her Thalia acceptance speech. She said she endeavored to identify the fundamental mathematical principles underlying all the arts, including architecture, theatre, dance and music. Her book, The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts, addresses itself to the fundamental mathematical and geometrical abstractions underlying these arts. “It was the study of dance and theatre which propelled me to view all Indian arts [as] aspects of an inter-relationship and inter-dependence.”

Kapila Vatsyayan’s achievements were and continue to remain impressive. Happily, her written work still remains for anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of the arts of India. The International Association of Theatre Critics is proud to remember her as one of its Thalia Prize laureates.

Edited by Don Rubin

Margareta Sörenson is President of the International Association of Theatre Critics. She writes regularly on dance, theatre and puppetry .