The Ru­payan Sansthan- run Arna-Jharna cel­e­brates open spa­ces and the rich­ness of Ra­jasthan’s tra­di­tions by show­cas­ing every­day ob­jects and folk cul­ture, high­light­ing their con­nec­tion to the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Marwar - - Altruism - Text Sneha Ma­hale

IN­DIA’S CULTURAL HIS­TORY IS mind-bog­gling in its di­ver­sity. Yet, while tourists line up out­side The Lou­vre in Paris or the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York City, their coun­ter­parts in In­dia are largely ig­nored. One ex­pla­na­tion char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally given is that cultural spa­ces in the coun­try house static his­tor­i­cal art­works and ar­ti­facts, mak­ing the mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence an unin­spir­ing prospect. But some in­sti­tu­tions challenge this very con­ven­tion.

Take the Ru­payan Sansthan-run Arna-Jharna for ex­am­ple. It cel­e­brates the open spa­ces of the desert as part of a larger holis­tic ex­plo­ration of the mu­seum as a place of learn­ing. It also pro­motes indige­nous knowl­edge of Ra­jasthan and en­cour­ages the idea that ‘folk’ is con­tem­po­rary. Thus ‘cul­ture’ is not merely in­stru­men­talised or ob­jec­ti­fied here, but viewed as an in­te­gral part of what it means to be hu­man.

Back to the roots

The conception of Arna-Jharna, which lit­er­ally trans­lates to ‘desert spring’, was a nat­u­ral one. The Ru­payan Sansthan was es­tab­lished in 1960, when the late Ko­mal Kothari, a renowned folk­lorist and eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist, and his friend Vi­jay­dan Detha, an emi­nent writer, de­cided to col­lect folk tales and songs to bring out the rich­ness of the Ra­jasthani lan­guage.

They trav­elled to more than 29,000 vil­lages over the next 30 years, col­lect­ing a trea­sure trove of Ra­jasthan’s cultural her­itage, en­com­pass­ing folk songs, folk tales, folk be­liefs, proverbs, folk bal­lads, folk epics, folk gods and god­desses, so­cial prac­tices, rit­u­als, fairs and fes­ti­vals, ru­ral food, no­mads and the pas­toral way of life. Their archival and re­search work was recorded in au­dio and video for­mats. Tan­gi­ble ob­jects of daily life made from nat­u­ral re­sources were also sought. The process of how cul­ture—com­pris­ing lo­cal knowl­edge and skills—was passed down

from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other was stud­ied. “Though there was some dif­fi­culty in fund­ing this ini­tia­tive, pas­sion for the cause by the found­ing mem­bers and sup­port from in­ter­na­tional schol­ars who viewed this ma­te­rial as a re­source, saw it through,” says Kuldeep Kothari, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Ru­payan Sansthan.

The next few years were tough and the in­sti­tu­tion re­mained de­funct. Well-wish­ers in­ter­vened, ask­ing Ko­mal Kothari to re­vive it. Sup­port and fund­ing also started trick­ling in slowly through agen­cies such as the Ford Foun­da­tion, Prince Claus Fund, In­dia Foun­da­tion for Arts, Min­istry of Cul­ture, Indira Gandhi Na­tional Cen­tre for the Arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, In­dia In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre and In­dian Coun­cil for Cultural Re­la­tions, among oth­ers. Friends and fam­ily mem­bers too lent a help­ing hand. And with that, fi­nally the Ru­payan Sansthan made a come­back.

The ini­tial foray

Ko­mal Kothari’s archival and re­search work won him much recog­ni­tion. He was con­ferred the Padma Shri in 1983 and the Padma Bhushan in 2004 by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia. Arna-Jharna was then en­vi­sioned as an ex­ten­sion of the work done at the Ru­payan Sansthan. But how could the di­ver­sity of the desert be con­stricted in glass build­ings and static art­work? It couldn’t. So a folk mu­seum was imag­ined that epit­o­mised the every­day lives and arts of peo­ple, their tra­di­tional knowl­edge sys­tems and the en­vi­ron­ment they lived in.

Arna-Jharna, which is sit­u­ated 23km from Jodh­pur and is spread across 10 acres of land, came into ex­is­tence in 2003.

Kothari’s vi­sion is re­flected in ev­ery part of this cultural space, right from the folk ex­hibits to the wa­ter con­ser­va­tion meth­ods em­ployed. Even the flora is in sync with the over­all theme. The mu­seum now has 250 va­ri­eties of shrubs, plants and trees that have grown nat­u­rally around it over the years. They are now stud­ied for their cor­re­la­tion with every­day desert life.

The mu­seum opened with an ex­hi­bi­tion on brooms and the first three years of its ex­is­tence was ded­i­cated to this sin­gle ob­ject. “The broom is an im­por­tant every­day ob­ject and we all know that. But not many are aware of its va­ri­eties and uses. The type of broom found in a par­tic­u­lar re­gion is con­nected to the food grown, on whether it is used to clean an open space or an en­closed one, on the raw ma­te­ri­als avail­able in the area, etc,” says Kuldeep Kothari.

Broad strokes

It took five to seven years to put the ex­hi­bi­tion to­gether. Com­mu­ni­ties and no­mads had to be ap­proached to gain an un­der­stand­ing about each broom, the nat­u­ral re­sources used for mak­ing one and the lo­cal meth­ods em­ployed, the lives of broom-mak­ers in gen­eral (who usu­ally are from marginalised caste groups), the myths, be­liefs and sym­bols sur­round­ing brooms, etc. Even­tu­ally, the team dis­cov­ered that there were 200 types of ma­te­ri­als for mak­ing brooms in their re­search area alone. They also learnt how brooms from out­side the re­gion had been in­cor­po­rated into the day-to-day life of Ra­jasthan. “We came across the phool jhadu, which is from North­east In­dia. We also en­coun­tered a broom fash­ioned from the co­conut leaf, which is typ­i­cally found in South In­dia,” says Kothari.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the team also learnt about the threat

that the tra­di­tional broom faced from newer syn­thetic va­ri­eties that were mass pro­duced and sold at lesser prices. This made the process of doc­u­ment­ing the many va­ri­eties of brooms in ex­is­tence even more crit­i­cal. “Re­search has just be­gun. When vis­i­tors come by, they com­ment on brooms found in their re­gions and the knowl­edge bank grows. So un­know­ingly, they con­trib­ute too. Though we may not be able to in­cor­po­rate brooms from out­side Ra­jasthan into the mu­seum, our un­der­stand­ing of In­dia’s cultural di­ver­sity grows. We have in re­cent times come across pro­fes­sional broom-mak­ers who are craft­ing brooms for tiles and ce­ment,” says Kothari.

What the fu­ture holds

Arna-Jharna ad­di­tion­ally houses more than 20,000 hours of ma­te­rial con­nected with folk tales, folk songs, bal­lads, sto­ry­telling, epics, etc. This repos­i­tory can be ac­cessed at the mu­seum. The ma­te­rial is used by lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional re­search schol­ars as a re­source to study the cultural di­ver­sity of the re­gion. There are also 110 mu­si­cal in­stru­ments of Ra­jasthan in the ar­chives and pup­pets on dis­play.

Arna-Jharna prides it­self on be­ing an in­clu­sive mu­seum and for not fo­cus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar group of peo­ple. It is now look­ing to build a strong com­mu­nity around it in the years to come. A step in this di­rec­tion has al­ready been taken by as­so­ci­at­ing with folk mu­si­cians from the Langa and Man­gani­yar com­mu­ni­ties, who now per­form reg­u­larly at the site. That apart, botanists, ge­ol­o­gists, sci­en­tists and devel­op­ment work­ers are also in­creas­ingly col­lab­o­rat­ing with Arna-Jharna to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of tra­di­tional knowl­edge sys­tems, thus mak­ing the ‘desert spring’ mu­seum an oa­sis of in­for­ma­tion in the arid land­scape of Ra­jasthan

Top: Vil­lagers at the broom ex­hi­bi­tion Left: School­child­ren at the pup­pet ex­hi­bi­tion

Top: Women plas­ter­ing a mud wall Fac­ing page: In­tro­duc­tion panel and pho­to­graph of Ko­mal Kothari, founder of the Ru­payan Sansthan

Be­low: A Kal­be­lia folk dance per­for­mance or­gan­ised as part of the mu­seum’s ini­tia­tive to as­so­ciate with folk artistes

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