A SWEEPING SUCCESS
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.
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.
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