THE VISUAL NARRATIVE OF JANAPADA LOKA, A MUSEUM OF FOLK ART

November 01, 2018

 

By Sushumna Kannan

 

Janapada Loka, literally ‘folk world,’ is a museum of folk art and culture spread across 15 acres along the Bengaluru-Mysuru Highway near Chennapattana, in Ramanagaram district, put together single-handedly by the well-known civil servant, late H.L. Nage Gowda. The museum offers a peek into quickly-vanishing rural lifestyles through objects of utility as well as ornamentation.

The huge metal entrance gate has an embossed sun and four bugles, underlined by a row of small terracotta peacocks, with brick and metal pillars on either side. One uses the small gate to enter the premises. Janapada Loka is dotted by a few buildings, each at a short distance from the others. The three museum buildings are: Loka Maatha Mandira, Chitra Kuteera and Loka Mahal. In addition, there is an open-air theatre, a college for folk arts built with bricks and clay tiles for roof called Doddamane, a water tank and a cafeteria called Loka Ruchi that serves North-Karnataka cuisine and is run by Kamat Yathrinivas.

The Loka Maatha Mandir consists of a collection of various objects from all over Karnataka. Framed copies of paintings that were once inside homes in Shimoga, Tanjore style painting of the deity Srinivasa, which is a traditional wedding gift from mothers to daughters over generations, pictures made of bead work, containers of various kinds used in farms and villages, cattle bells, tools, baskets, pots used in village households, big wooden trunks, wooden cribs, writing desks, containers used to store paddy, mirror frames, vegetable cutters and a traditional dustpan are all part of this collection.

The Chithra Kuteera consists of photographs of folk artists and varieties of Yakshagana make-up, a dance form specific to parts of Karnataka. The interior of this smallish circular building consists a collection of H L Nage Gowda’s manuscripts, published books, video footage, awards and photographs. The Loka Mahal holds life-size plaster of Paris moulds of a decorated bull, of characters from various styles of Yakshagana which are based on puranic stories. A life-size Kodava couple, a life-size dasayya or wandering mendicant, tools, bead ornaments used during a marriage in Belgaum, colour-painted terracotta ‘idols’ of Gods and Goddesses arranged in nine steps as during the Navaratri festival, among which are a Mary and Christ. Reproductions of ‘daivas’, Yakshis, ‘vigrahas’ and reproductions of imaginary or mythical birds and animals are also displayed here. Wooden kitchenware, from a rolling pin to measures of various sizes, clay lamps and a rare jangama nail-encrusted wooden sandal are all in glass encased showcases. Life-size wood sculptures of Yakshis and bhootas and sculptures of Ganesha, Raavana and Nandi are arranged within a structure of pentagon-shaped walls. The first floor of this building consists of leather shadow puppet characters of different styles, many centuries old. String puppets of characters commonly narrated along with the many decorated moulds of masks, a queen and a devi are also displayed. Musical instruments, games, and manuscripts are found here. The outdoor museum comprises mainly of sculptures and two chariots.

 

The visual narrative that Janapada Loka presents is quite clearly akin to that of museums that offer a nation-building narrative. Here, nationhood is synonymous with modernity and there is nostalgia and longing for the vanishing past, as it were, which is rural life. One of the burdens of nationhood is narrativizing tradition or writing history, since tradition must be preserved, celebrated and justified. While Janapada Loka participates in this narrative, through its own historical ‘implicatedness’ and its engagement with the museological discourse, it also evokes reflections on the notions of culture and ‘folk culture.’ Janapada Loka presents a somewhat open-ended narrative of its objects; though deeply invested in the traditions of Karnataka.

The rhetoric of presentation of museums, has, over time, had to change from one of a conversation among connoisseurs to one where scholars imparted knowledge to the unlettered and this motto is what the ideal citizen-subject invests in—as did the late H L Nage Gowda. This lofty aim is reflected in his foreword to A Catalogue: Janapada Loka: “…it is time for one and all to realise their [museum’s] potentials as sources of unlimited knowledge, experiments, research and as MEDIUM OF FIRST HAND EDUCATION.” [sic] And although, museums in the west have long marginalized the collector’s subjectivity to that of a curator’s struggle, one can find Janapada Loka constantly swaying between the two, for, Gowda’s personality and single-handed achievement looms large over Janapada Loka, which is largely a citizen initiative.

The privileging of vision and the selection of objects makes the museum a rationalizer of the natural world, whose diversity and differences are unmanageable in the singular story of the progress of mankind that museums often tend to tell. The question that still remains for us is, of course: how might we understand a collection of objects that are arranged and displayed for hundreds of people to see, which was not the purpose for which these objects were created? However, in postcolonial museums, it appears, it is not art that is preserved, but history. It is not as if the aesthetic object must be emptied of its meaning within the museum walls, but that straightaway what is preserved is preserved for its value in history. Thus, unlike western museums, there is no standard narrative of evolution that Janapada Loka presents in terms of a time frame or skills gained or materials used, although the narrative invests in progress through education and the urgent need to convey the richness of a culture and tradition. Equally interestingly, Janapada Loka combines industrial arts and decorative arts through its display of farming and cooking tools and paintings and representation of art forms, which were distinguished in the early history of the museum in the west.  

 

What drives Janapada Loka is an attitude of seva, another nationalist ideal.  Janapada Loka does not participate strictly in activities of attempting to present a coherent narrative, strung together by region, nation, time or material; it is far more open, with a loosely tied narrative. Museumization here is not used for the creation of a secularized state, like in many national museums, rather what runs throughout is a notion of culture. This notion of culture is once a set of practices, once some performative arts, and yet again merely a group of objects, and then suddenly, a way of life. Although, Janapada Loka is largely sold to visitors as an exhibit on ‘Kannada culture,’ one hardly finds a complete regional representation of Karnataka, even in the representations, copies and duplicates. Bengali chao masks, Kathakali masks and so on co-exist sporadically. One single life-size Kodava couple does not go far in capturing the regional and does disservice to the idea of the folk. The problems of boundaries are more than visible here, especially since it is a collector’s museum, and not a curator’s. Equally unsurprisingly, many of the objects in Janapada Loka are collections based on goodwill or are gifts from ‘good’ and well-meaning citizens, as revealed in some of the interviews I conducted there. In general, that for nationalist narrative to come into being, an intermeshing of the principles of civic and ethnic nationalism is necessary is amply clear through the visual narrative of the Janapada Loka.