AICT-IATC Thalia prize 2012 in Warsaw

Margareta Sörenson[1]


Long ago, I met briefly in Stockholm with Mrs. Kapila Vatsyayan. It was immediately clear that this lady was a person of deep knowledge and highly refined culture, as well as the impressive capacity to communicate both with ease. When later reading her writings, I was equally struck by her clarity of mind and the rare and specific beauty in her writing.

A person from the Western world easily feels helpless before Indian culture and its performing arts. We are looking for story lines and characters to identify with, and we easily get suspicious when we feel lost in fogs of spiritualism and religion. Here, the guidance of Kapila Vatsyayan is firm and distinct and miraculously combines a wide perspective—historical, philosophical and political– with microcosmic notes on gestures and movements, masks and colours, rhythm and sound. She introduces the ignorant reader with great efficiency:

A mention of the performing arts of India immediately bring to one’s mind the single-bodied and many-armed image of Durga, or Shiva in his form as Nataraja, ever destroying, ever creating new forms of the dance Tandava. These symbols in plastic form suggest at one level 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.

(Introduction, Traditional Indian Theatre, Multiple Forms)

The challenge to the Western reader is a fact. Where we are trained to analyse through distinctions, differences, and try to overlook by organising our thinking into disciplines, sorting even the arts into boxes labelled theatre, dance, music and image/scenography separately, the Indian tradition invites us to look for other ways of understanding the arts.

In fact, understanding early Western modernism, as well as post modern styles and even post postmodern performing arts, is helped or guided by the ways a scholar like Kapila Vatsyayan has been working. Typical enough, her writings in the ‘70s and ‘80s became essential to students and scholars in the Western world at a time when the Beatles approached the Indian raga and distant cultures came close through their shared opinions against colonialism and post-colonial attitudes to the U.S. war in Vietnam.

It might sound bizarre, but it is through studies of Indian performing arts that I learned how impossible the separation between dance and dramatic theatre is. In my studies of kathakali and its variations, I learned how the dramatic expression resides within the movement, and this made me turn back to the European theatre with a new look at the history of the European stages, where, in fact theatre, dance and music were inseparable until the middle of the 19th century. Theatre and dance remained divorced for some time, but the artists of modernism longed to return to the great possibilities of cross-over-forms.

Time in the sense of continuity, and diversity in the sense of multi-layers, are Indian classical thinking, but are also highly contemporary. You will find them in contemporary butoh dance from Japan as well as in Bollywood films, or in yet another remake of Hamlet. The notion of “time” on stage, time in re-telling both as a structure and as counting minutes and seconds, opens doors to the contemporary performing arts as well as to the music videos of the so-called MTV-generation, already getting grey hair.Time when shown onstage can be perceived as a repeat of time already passed, or in Indian classical dance as an elastic material, or as Kapila Vatsyayan puts it, as a “kinetic re-living of the frozen moment.” The Indian dramatic dance-theatre can easily focus on a period of time, freeze it and make it as large as is interesting for the interpretation. A moment can last for hours, and it is possible to move freely within the story telling, going back and forth in a way that is as original as it is contemporary.

Europeans and Americans have repeatedly searched among Asian traditions, looking for inspiration, ideas, material and forms, following an old pattern of importation of the treasures from the far East. Orientalism and exoticism have flavoured the arts of the Western world throughout the centuries and it has to be noted in the writings of Kapila Vatsyayan that her analysis is crystal clear concerning colonialism, being colonized and living in a post colonial era. She puts the colonial time into her vast scheme of multiple layers and the fact that there is not one tradition but traditions in India – which goes for any area of the globe.

When India became a colony, the process of mutual influence and acculturation continued: while on the one hand, India was being politically conquered, its culture, or at least a curiosity for it, was also making inroads into the minds of the administrators and organizers representing the rulers. Many civil servants who came to India were brought up in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal-arts tradition of Europe; a spirit of inquiry and desire for intellectual adventure was engrained.

But she continues to point out that this “must be understood in the proper perspective,” that is, that the English colonial power founded a new educational system and “by the time India attained political independence, there was a very definite dichotomy between the institutions of traditional culture ….and the institutions of education.” (Some aspects of cultural policies in India, Unesco 1972)

In this way, Kapila Vatsyayan shows elegantly that despite the fact that all Indians were forced to accept a foreign system of education, the culture itself lived on and formed a solid base for the new independent Indian nation. Diversity and multi-layers were all the time principles of understanding, which served as a resistance of mind and a reservoir tank for times to come.

During those decades of the 20th century when globalization and multi-culturalism were highly influential on the stages of the Western world her clear analysis and insightful understanding of the Indian tradition lighted the way to true exchanges that avoided “cultural tourism.”

The continuity of the Indian philosophy makes the notions of classic and modern melt together. It creates a perspective of very long lines, and of something very precious in our time: tolerance. When describing the many layers of Indian culture, Kapila Vatsyayan does not think in hierarchies; she puts folklore and popular traditions along with elaborate and refined forms, discussing cultural variations and regional traditions with the same energy and values. Tolerance and equality, freedom and colorful multitudes are values that can be found between the lines of the many books and studies of Kapila Vatsyayan.

IATC’s Thalia Prize of IATC is a young one, and we would like it to be given to someone who has made a change in us, the critics. Someone who has made the critics or theatre goers around the world learn something new and guided us all to a better understanding of the performing arts, of their tradition and to what extent they are parts of global exchange and patterns. Indeed, Kapila Vatsyayan has made such a change. Her importance in India is deep and wide, but to the world beyond the subcontinent she has described the richness of her tradition in such a precise way that it puts our own tradition in a new context. To be able to present her as our fourth Thalia Prize laureate is a great joy and proof of the fruitfulness of global work.


[1] Margareta Sörenson is a Swedish theatre and dance critic. She has directed the Seminars for young critics for some time and, recently, at the Congress of the IATC in Yerevan (Armenia), she was appointed Vice-President, as well as Director of Colloquia, of that same Association.

Copyright © 2012 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Citation: Kapila Vatsyayan