Above: Mr. Kuldeep Kothari briefing the group; the Arna Jharna Museum, at the back.
It was an early winter morning of November 2019. It was chilly, with the wind swiftly brushing past us. I was with a group of Museum professionals, on a private bus, headed towards the Arna Jharna Museum, on the outskirts of the city of Jodhpur. The name had me intrigued. I knew that ‘Jharna’ implied ‘a waterfall’ and I thought, was this going to be an oasis in the Thar Desert? It was later that I learnt that the name ‘Arna Jharna’ implied ‘forest-spring’.
The Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India is an arid zone. It has sandy soil, rocky sub-strata, receives very limited rainfall, and can be extremely hot during most parts of the year. On reaching the site, I looked around to find nothing but a few mud structures, amidst vast desert land, interspersed with occasional succulents and other varieties of trees. Our group was warmly received by Mr. Kuldeep Kothari, at the Arna Jharna. Mr. Kothari is the Secretary at the Rupayan Sansthan, an organization that runs the Museum, and works extensively towards researching, preserving and promoting the rich culture of Rajasthan.
His narrations about the space and collection were personal. It was his father, the Late Mr. Komal Kothari who envisioned this Museum and put it together in 2000. His distinguished contribution to the Arts was felicitated with the prestigious Padma Bhushan Award, the third – highest civilian award in the republic of India. The Museum celebrates the traditional knowledge systems of the desert and works towards establishing the link between everyday cultural practices to the larger ecological concerns. It was no surprise that the Museum wasn’t what we imagined. It wasn’t a concrete structure, nor did the exhibits have glass encasings. They do not believe in a “Don’t Touch" policy that most Museums across the globe believe to be the norm; it was their way of exploring all possibilities of what the Museum could be.
All forms of desert life; the flora, fauna, birds, water bodies, and the culture of the land, both tangible and intangible, are celebrated within the precincts in which the Museum lies. An intricate complex of earth-red mud structures, and thatched roofs, very typical of the region, makes up the Museum facade, neatly blending in with the landscape. The material used was comforting especially with considerations of the drastic climatic fluctuations of the desert; it would provide warmth, in the harsh winters and act as a coolant, in the summers.
At the time of our visit, the Museum had two major collection types on display, in individual spaces, with several more in the making. One of the two exhibition spaces was on folk musical instruments, pieces that are known to be unique to Western South Asia. Some of these, such as Nagfani, Jantar and Jogia sarangi are no longer produced or used. The Ravanhatha and the Kamaicha are two that I was familiar with. Both are string instruments used by traditional artists. The former is used by the Bhopa community of priests during their Phad painting narrations. The Kamaicha, known for its deep, haunting melody, is used by the Maganiar community of musicians. The neatly placed cymbals and bells were most eye catching for me.
The exhibition on brooms was a first of its kind. Sourced from all over Rajasthan, it sought to document and exhibit the immense skill and labour that goes into making the brooms, traditionally, and points out how this tradition is slowly transitioning into more convenient means and materials, and the probability of the knowledge soon disappearing was brought to light.
The very humble broom is steeped in rituals and beliefs, as part of the everyday. The exhibition highlighted interesting aspects such as gender, name and characteristics of brooms and equivalent associations with various spaces, and beliefs around them. To give an example, female brooms could have names such as buari and havarni, and find association with the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. As such, these brooms are stored in a horizontal position for good luck. They are soft to the touch, and used in the inner spaces of the household.
The Museum as a whole is a beautiful example of a living Museum. Through the efforts of the Rupayan Sansthan, the Museum has access to a wide collection of research material, records, audio-visuals, documentaries, etc. Some of this is available in the exhibition spaces, as an accompaniment to the displays. This resource enables a better understanding of the exhibits, and also connects with the concerned community. The Museum very clearly understands and takes on a great sense of responsibility with respect to the sensitivities of the audience about the local communities, and the various concerns surrounding them. The space also doubles as a platform for the folk artists, under the aegis of the Rajrang, a unit of the Rupayan Sansthan. We had the opportunity of experiencing one such soulful rendition by the Manganiar musicians.
Groups visiting the Museum can pre-book hands-on workshops, and performances, customized as per their liking. The former is programmed based on the learner profile and requirements. This Museum facilitates an immersive, experiential learning of traditions, allowing its visitors to engage in new ways with folklore, living cultures, and artists, taste local cuisine and learn hands-on. For hiking enthusiasts and outdoor lovers, the Museum’s vicinity has a lot to offer. It also plans excursions to artists’ villages. Resources for referencing, reading and purchase are available as well in the Pothi-Pana (Book and Audio-Visual Library) and the Vannik (Souvenir and Bookstore), for those interested.
My visit made me rethink about Museum Auras and Visitor Experience; of how the Vastu - or energies - of a space and several other allied factors can influence the mood. The site is a breath of fresh air; one has to see it to believe it. Sans the restrictions, it gave me a sense of freedom; nonetheless while still observing caution and appropriate Museum etiquette.
Arna – Jharna: The Thar Desert Museum of Rajasthan
Jodhpur – Jailsalmer Highway, Village – Moklawas
Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India
Hours: 8:00 AM - 6:00 PM
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Chelsea Santos is the Assistant Curator at The City Palace Museum, Udaipur. She has a wide work profile that involves curation, research, design, social media content creation, planning and programming digital events and outreach activities. She is passionate about access and inclusion, and is working on new content and resources for various audience segments.