A virtual dance event, Padma Vibhushan Dr Kapila Vatsyayan Indian Classical Dance Fest, organised by the Kerala government’s culture department and curated by eminent artists highlights the artistic spirits that guided the legendary critic.

‘Padmavibhushan Dr Kapila Vatsyayan Indian Classical Dance Fest 2020’ was an unprecedented mega event to be organized by the Kerala government to pay homage to any Indian scholar. For 11 days in succession (December 8-18), 83 dancers of all hues paid tribute to Kapila Vatsyayan, a cultural celebrity who has made immortal contributions to Indian arts and culture in various capacities. She was an aesthete, bureaucrat, writer, organizer, founder of many institutions, and more.

Luminaries who had interacted with her for many years paid glowing tribute to the late scholar on the opening day. They included the Dhananjayan couple, Dr Padma Subramaniam, Sunil Kothari, Tapti Chowdhary, Omchery NN Pillai, MA Baby, G Venu and Narthaki Natarajan. The event introduced Vatsyayan not only to the young generation of dancers but also to all those who watched the virtual event from across the globe. The event also featured a biopic on Vatsyayan.

Reflecting modern values

Each day, programmes began with   lecture-demonstrations by the curators, which dealt with in detail the nuances of each dance form. As for the participants, they covered the entire spectrum not only in terms of dance forms but also in respect of their cadre. Eight of them performed each day; the seniors for 15 minutes, and juniors 10 minutes.

The selection of the dancers for opening performances highlighted the determination of the organisers to explode the myth of gender discrimination in dance. Transgender Bharatanatyam dancer Narthaki Natarajan took the stage first, to be followed by RLV Ramakrishnan who hogged headlines recently as his request for a Mohiniyattam performance was rejected by the functionaries of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in its online festival ‘Sargabhoomi’.

Clearly, many feel Ramakrishnan’s selection to an event remembering Vatsyayanan would be an eye-opener for the orthodoxy that seems to be controlling the Akademi. This is especially considering that the event was organized by the Akademi’s sister concern under the Department of Culture. The determination of the organisers was further evident by selecting the male Mohiniyattam dancer from France, Thomas Vo Van Tao, on the third day.

True, the cultural activities of the present government left much to be desired owing to a series of unprecedented disasters. For the same reason, the festival appeared to compensate at least partially for this lacuna. That said, many were seen frowning on the title of the event – why the name of Kapila Vatsyayan?

In love with Kerala art

I remember my first interview with Vatsyayan for a national daily two decades ago. This was soon after she was shown the door by the government from the very institution – Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts (IGNCA) – of which she was the founder-director. My first question about this unsavoury event appeared not to her liking and she dodged it with elan. “I have been visiting Kerala for the last 50 years regularly. There is no art form – classical, folk or ritual – about which I have not written and spoken at length. I would like us to discuss this rich treasure trove of Kerala”.

She was an instrumental force behind the national recognition Koodiyattam has been receiving. She said she was spellbound after watching the performance of Mani Madhava Chakyar in Madras (1962), which was the first staging of Koodiyattam outside Kerala. In 1963, he was awarded by the Sangeeth Natak Akademi, Delhi, the first national recognition for Koodiyattam. It was on her recommendation that he was conferred the Padma Shri in 1974.

Once, I met Kapila in Delhi on the side-lines of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Theater when the news had just come out about the selection of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar for Padma Bhushan. While I thanked her for her intervention in this matter, she smiled, “In fact, I had recommended him for the (higher honour of) Padma Vibhushan”.

On another occasion when I had invited her to inaugurate the birth centenary celebrations of Mani Madhava Chakyar (1999) by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, she said, “Why should I come when that great scholar is there right in Thrissur?” The scholar she mentioned was Prof KP Narayana Pisharody. But out of interest to meet the artistes of Kerala, she turned up and stayed back to watch a couple of performances. In this connection, one felt that the organisers of the Vatsyayan Fest could have included at least an anecdote from Koodiyattam taking into consideration her deep interest in the Sanskrit theatre form of Kerala.

Rajashree Warrier

It was she who selected Dr.Chummar Choondal, the late pioneer folklorist of Kerala, for the first IGNCA award for tribal arts. She was also the guide to Kanak Rele for her PhD, the first in Mohiniyattam in the country. KG Paulose, the first Vice-Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University for Art and Culture, had approached her to solve the myriad teething problems of the institution. But before she could swing into action Paulose had quit the role.

Judging from the conduct of the festival, it is abundantly clear that it was planned to be a didactic one apart from promoting the cultural plurality of the country. The government had entrusted the onus of holding the event to the right agency, Bharath Bhavan, Thiruvananthapuram. The institution was backed by Kerala State Youth Commission and the Malayalam Mission. The credit for picking seven curators – all reputed dancers – for chalking out the varied programmes goes to Pramod Payyannur, the member-secretary of the institution. The curators included Rajashree Warrier, Neena Prasad, Monisa Nayak, Sruti Bandopadhay, Y Hemantha Kumar, Aswathy and Sreekanth.


GS Paul is an eminent art columnist and critic. He has been writing for national dailies such as The Hindu for more than three decades. Currently, he is the Editorial Advisor of India Art Review.

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