The saga of priceless Indian folk art from the hills of Himachal
When you think of holidaying in the hills, the serenity at this altitude, the purity of the air and the peace — that’s intermittently poked by the rustling of leaves — of the environ overpowers. One often stops over, for longer than required, to admire the beauty of the oral traditions of the inhabitants of the hills, but misses out to acknowledge their tangible heritage. Wondering how did that get missed? For instance, the rich folk art of Himachal Pradesh is omnipresent in the region’s wooden carved statues that are placed outside houses to the worshipped mohras (plaques of dieties made of brass, copper, silver or gold) to the papier mâché masks that are brought to use during the festive dances.
From the more popular Pahari Rumals and silver jewellery to the less studied musical instruments and much-less studied textiles of Himachal, the objects on display at an ongoing exhibition speaks volumes about the diverse folk art of this region. The show is therefore aptly titled, Unknown Masterpieces of Himachal Folk Art.
Among the 240 artefacts, showcased from the collections of Gurugram-based Museum of Folk & Tribal Arts, there are many a gems that might not be literally talked-about as expensive pieces of art, but are as priceless as rare jewellery that’s worth millions. “The folk art of Himachal Pradesh and not very well known except for some miniature school of paintings and some embroidered handkerchiefs such as the Pahadi Rumals that are often mistaken as Chamba Rumals. But, there’s much more to Himachal’s folk art, and this was discovered when my father, late KC Aryan, started collection what was being either melted by the scrap dealers or burnt as wood in winter,” says BN Aryan, curator of the show.
Before a visitor enters the exhibition area, a sculpture with a basic wooden carving stands tall, welcoming the visitors. “This is the temple guardian,” informs Aryan, adding that there are many such works and other votive panels that are created by local craftsmen for devotees, who promise to offer these to the Gods on fulfillment of their wishes. “But, after these offerings become part of the temple property, they are either burnt as fuel or discarded outside the temple to face harsh weather conditions. It was a task for my father, and later me and my sister, Subhasini Aryan, to collect them as valuable pieces of Indian folk art,” he says.
The curator boasts of a collection of more than 300 miniatures of deities such as Mahishasuramardini – a form of Goddess Durga — Lords Shiva and Vishnu, but not all have been displayed here. “These are priceless; we cannot showcase all due to security reasons. Some of them belong to as early as the 10th century, and many of these were illegally taken out of India in absence of their protection,” says Aryan, as this visitor’s eyes are beheld by a 12th century Mahishasuramardini plaque that still has sindoor on it.
The curator informs that there is still scope to restore these artworks, but the sad state of craftsmen has pushed out such exquisite pieces of art from their rightful places. “I met a person who was the son of a master craftsman, selling tea in the Himachal. When I recognised him as an artisan, I asked him if he could still create some works, and he still had the skill. He created replicas of some of the plaques for me for a period of six months, but then I had to send him back for lack of funds to provide him livelihood,” says a grim Aryan.
Interact with the author on Twitter/@HennaRakheja