The duo who revolutionized the folk culture of Rajasthan

By Kankana TrivedionJul. 22, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

It was in the year 1960 that Komal Kothari and Vijaydan Detha, then in their early 30s, started a decades-long journey of understanding the nuances of language by documenting the folklore and cultural anecdotes of Rajasthan. Friends since childhood, the duo, in 1965, founded Rupayan Sansthan in Borunda village (Jodhpur district) which is also the native place of Vijaydan Detha. Detha was known for his art of storytelling and for his writing in folk journals like Lok Sanskriti, and his 14-volume masterpiece, Bataan ri Phulwari. There are also film adaptations to the folk stories that he wrote. And Komal Kothari became the first secretary of Sangeet Natak Academy in Jodhpur. Widely remembered for his work on ethnomusicology, he is today known as one of the pioneers of Rajasthani folk music and an environmental activist who worked on the traditional local practices of water harvesting and agriculture.

Kuldeep Kothari, Komal Kothari’s son, who today oversees Rupayan Sansthan and the Arna Jharna Museum, shared the story of the inception of decades-long work that the duo did,

My father and Vijaydanji initially began collecting the stories from the women who were married into the village. This was because these daughters-in-law in Borunda came from different places in Rajasthan, bringing with them diverse customs and literature. Today we have over 10,000 folktales from across the state.

Over the years the archive expanded to being the sole centre for preserving the cultural heritage and further the livelihoods of many traditional folk and performing artists in Rajasthan. In particular, the Rupayan Sansthan has created a deeper relationship with “hereditary caste musicians” – a term used for the communities from particular caste groups whose livelihoods were based on music performances for their respective so-called upper caste patrons. In Rajasthan, there were Mangarias (patrons to the Rajputs and others), Dhadis (patrons to the Jats) and Langha (patrons to the Sindhi-Sipahis). Their songs were primarily in celebration of childbirth, wedding, death or other ceremonial events. However, with changing caste dynamics and the need for catering to changing entertainment demands, many musician families started leaving this livelihood and the art form and were forced to sing new-gen Bollywood songs. “Traditionally”, explained Kuldeep Kothari, “the relationship between the patrons and musicians was an innate and important part of both the cultures; however, now we hear stories of musicians being treated badly”.

These experiences have become the basis for Rupayan’s visionary work for community empowerment, in the form of research, networking and connecting the artisans, especially from the poorer families, to the festivals and urban households. Over the years they have also been working towards improvising instruments and musical scores (laya) to create newer versions of melodies.

For many years, Rupayan was the linchpin for various community interactions, attempting to connect 36 inter-dependent occupational caste communities in Rajasthan. It was instrumental in improving the artisan’s salaries by the Sangeet Kala Academy from Rs.3000 to Rs.8000 per performance as of today.

Kothari strived to foster dialogues between folk and classical music. He believed that a folk traditional practice unlike classical music (with gharanas) emerges from a social system that is “learnt but not taught”. This led to the opening up of spaces in the form of educational camps by senior musicians for children from these folk communities so that they could learn about traditional instruments, build vocal skills, etc.

The archives have enhanced ethnomusicology literature. It has also been useful for training purposes. Kuldeep Kothari shares, “These archives aren’t just historical documents to reminisce about the old times, but very useful for us. With the help of senior musicians, we are working with the kids of 7-14 years of Langha community in order to develop their repertoire on some highly complex songs that were in the archives with us. So far, we are teaching 30 kids three days a week. Hopefully, some of these kids will carry forward the tradition.”

In 1973, Detha was awarded Sahitya Kala Award and Padma Shri in 2007. Kothari was honored with Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan in 1983 and 2004 respectively. (Image from Sahapedia)

The Sansthan remained somewhat dormant logistically during the 1990s due to Kothari and Detha’s advanced years. Yet their minds remained sprightly. Kothari broke the ground by creating a framework to visualize the culture of Rajasthan within the distinct ecologies, which influenced the culture and local modes of food and music production, including the former’s symbiotic connections with the musical instruments.

“My father believed that the culture is to be understood through food. And divided it into three zones: Bajra (pearl millet), Makka (maize), Jowar (sorghum)”, says Kuldeep Kothari.

“The kamaicha (a bowed string instrument) is said to be played in grass-growing areas, prone to three to four inches of rainfall. The algoja (flute) is found in jowar-growing regions dominated by pastoralists.”

Vishal Pratap Singh Deo for Sahapedia (an open online resource on the arts, culture and heritage of India and South Asia; See https://www.sahapedia.org/).

Such initiatives eventually gave birth to the desert museum called Arna Jharna: The Thar Desert Museum in 1998. This museum is an accolade to and a representation of Kothari’s vision for an alternative tale of Rajasthan.

Like rambling in the countryside, Arna Jharna is a ‘living museum’ that celebrates the local ecosystem and life in this terrain.

The museum spread across over ten acres of land in Moklawas, about 15 kilometres from Jodhpur city, is a myriad display of native flora and fauna (many of which are not available so commonly). Surrounded by rocky scrubland with a ravine created from a stone quarry, it includes 700-800 plants of 200 species of trees, grass, shrubs around. Some of the grass varieties were Dhaman, Sevan and Lompdra, growing like a carpet.

Going inside the mud structures, the eccentric open gallery displays musical instruments, pottery, puppets and brooms. The key element in the museum is brooms, which is also understood as (known as jhadu in Hindi) one of the need-based daily life objects, and astounded, as we may be, the museum has a collection of over 180 types of grass, shrubs, bushes for brooms and more to be coming soon.

The curation of the museum brings forth environmental and socio-cultural connotations using brooms for representing three ecological zones: bajra , makka  and jowar . Kuldeep Kothari has been overseeing this museum since its inception and designed and collaborated with many communities and artists to nuance the narratives around brooms as well as help create a broom economy. He explained,

“Our housing styles have been evolving and this changes the broom material demands. Today the phool-jhadu comes from Northeast India, coconut-jhadu from the south, while date-palm-jhadu are made in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. Before phool-jhadu arrived, panni-jhadu was used. Bamboo-jhadu is used by communities, like Harijan, for a mix of dry and wet cleaning on hard surfaces.”

Kuldeep Kothari navigating through the traditional architecture with few varieties of brooms on the left corner.

Over the last few years, Kuldeep Kothari has been researching grass fiber development and experimenting with newer and connected topics. With the museum as a base for collaboration, he is working with scientists to create a gravity filter (known as G filter) from the pottery items.

Contact the author

The author is a member of Kalpavriksh. This article is based on the discussion she had with Kuldeep Kothari from Arna-Jharna Museum in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

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