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A museum of folk traditions

Spread over 10 acres on a rocky outcrop in northwestern India’s Jodhpur town, Arna Jhana celebrates the open spaces of the desert, including its flora and fauna

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The broom section at the Arna Jharna museum showcases a brief history of broom-making techniques and displays more than 200 types of brooms made from a variety of shrubs and plants in different parts of Rajasthan
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Two childhood friends of Jodhpur in northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan began an effort in 1960 to conserve the indigenous traditions of the desert.

Komal Kothari and Vijaydan Detha formed Rupayan Sansthan, an institute to document the state’s folklore, arts and music, and began developing a conceptual basis to explain its traditions.

Detha turned an author and adapted folk stories into his critically acclaimed literary works, and Kothari focused on documenting the numerous living traditions of the desert state. Through his efforts, Kothari offered an alternative model of development and helped internationalise many of the Rajasthani folk practices.

When Detha, who is widely regarded as a folklore socialist for his anti-feudal writings, was writing short stories, Kothari was trying to explain the tense balance between the ecology and culture, where the material and the performative aspect could only survive in harmonious relation to its environment.

But by the 1990s, Rupayan Sansthan was becoming defunct. In 30 years, Detha had written more than 800 short stories, some of which have been adapted into popular Hindi films, and Kothari had traversed 29,000 villages to document people’s traditional knowledge.

Kothari had long envisaged a space to exhibit and bring about public engagement with the folk culture and oral traditions he had spent his life documenting. In 1999, his son, Kuldeep Kothari, joined Rupayan Sansthan and began the revival process. Top of his priority was to fulfill his father’s dream of setting up a museum of folk traditions.

And that’s how Arna Jharna desert museum at Moklawas village, 15 kilometres from Jodhpur city on the Jaisalmer road, came about.

Arna Jharna (Hindi words for forest and spring) encompasses a rocky outcrop and a ravine, which includes an old stone quarry turned watershed, and commands breathtaking views of the rocky plains of the scrubland, showcasing the harsh beauty of the Marwar region of Rajasthan.

Spread over 10 acres, the museum is a haven for desert flora and fauna apart from being the repository of living traditions documented through hours of ethnographical interviews on the folk practices of the state.

“It is marked by a devotion to the natural and organic resources of Rajasthan, the local communities and their local forms of knowledge, art and culture,” says Kuldeep Kothari.

Arna Jharna has 30 different varieties of trees and shrubs and is laid with a variegated carpet of several types of grass. The air is filled with sounds of birds and deer and peacock are regular visitors to an old stone quarry turned into a watershed.

Komal Da, as the elder Kothari was popularly referred to, showed how musical traditions were endemic to three distinct agrarian zones as they were dependent on the available flora and fauna. For this study, Kothari divided the state into three food zones – pearl millet, sorghum and maize.

Arna Jharna has a gallery of rare musical instruments. Many of them are not in use any more but their sounds and style are part of the audiovisual archive at the museum, which contains up to 8,000 hours of recordings Kothari carried out over several decades.

There are fields of all three crops at Arna Jharna where schoolchildren visit in groups to know about them. There are more than 250 plants here, many of which have traditional medicinal value. “My father wanted people to remember what nature had given to the state and keep using this wealth,” says Kuldeep, adding that visitors are told about medicinal plants and encouraged to grow them so that they don’t become extinct.

There are open wells and mud bunds to conserve rainwater. “We have tried to keep everything natural,” Kuldeep adds.

Arna Jharna also has a broom museum, which offers a brief history of broom-making techniques and displays more than 200 types of brooms made from a variety of shrubs and plants in different parts of the state. There are different sections for brooms used to sweep the outdoors and the ones used inside.

“As one goes around the broom museum, interviews with broom-makers run on a television screen for visitors to get a better insight into how this object of daily use can be used to learn about balance between ecology and culture,” says Prof Sanjeev Bhanawat, head of Centre for Mass Communication at the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, who recently took a group of journalists to the museum on a field visit for a workshop on development journalism.

“In most museums, you find objects which are related to dead traditions. But my father wanted to exhibit living traditions so we collected brooms from different parts of the state for this exhibition. People come here wondering what they need to know about this object of daily use and go back informed about our traditions. The brooms are specific to areas and communities,” says Kuldeep.

The Rupayan Sansthan, he adds, continues to work with communities to help them conserve their tradition knowledge. “Our collaboration with engineers of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Jodhpur, is one such initiative. They have designed a ceramic water filter through traditional pottery techniques and are training potters to make it so that every village can have access to clean drinking water without depending on government’s piped water,” he adds.

“The GenNext of potters were not interested in pottery. This technological intervention has revived their interest in this traditional work,” says Anand Plappali of department of mechanical engineering, who worked on the project.

Though Komal Kothari passed away in 2004 soon after the opening of the museum, his vision and legacy continues to inspire the members of Rupayan Sansthan, who are working on digitising the musical archive at Arna Jharna. The enormous archive contains rich ethnographical interviews with artisans, potters, musicians and practitioners of indigenous medicine over more than 40 years.

Komal Kothari endeavoured to give a platform to caste musicians such as Langas, Manganiars and Kalbelias, making sure, at the same time, that the intellectual property of these musicians was protected. Many artistes in Rajasthan swear by Komal Da’s contribution in taking these musicians to international stages and popularising them in India as well.

Kothari died in 2004, the year he was awarded India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan. Detha received the fourth highest civilian honour, the Padma Shree in 2007. He passed away in 2013.

Rupayan Sansthan conducts workshops with stakeholders in the folk and cultural sphere. Some prominent professors of religion and anthropology are associated with these events.

Emeritus reader of Sanskrit at Cambridge University, John Smith researched for his monumental monograph, The Epic of Pabuji, using the transcripts and recordings of the Rupayan Sansthan.

Other scholars who have been closely associated with the Rupayan Sansthan through workshops, seminars and research are Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and Director, South Asia Center, Syracruse University, Prof. Susan Wadley; and Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Professor of Anthropology at Syracruse University Prof. Ann Gridzen Gold.

Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.