A slice of history is alive at siblings’ home of folk art
Sitting at his home in Udyog Vihar, Baij Nath Aryan admits he is in the throes of a passionate love affair with tribal and folk artforms from across India.
Tribals are unabashedly fashionable people and their art reflect the same dynamism, he says, as he points to the several art pieces around him. “Look at these artefacts — they are vivid, alive and breathing. Losing any bit of this rich culture is like letting go of history. Every museum in the country houses classical Indian art. But folk art is completely ignored,” says the sexagenarian, who, along with his sister Subhashini, have turned their house into a art haven even with its peeling walls and creaking doors.
The unassuming saffron-hued house – also known as the Museum of Folk and Tribal Art – is home to over 30,000 Indian artefacts. And behind the story of this museum lies the story of the siblings’ late father — well-known painter, sculptor and national award recipient KC Aryan. In the 1940s, the siblings say, their father was pained to see the plight of tribal and folk art.
“He could see folk and tribal objects across the country getting destroyed, melted and thrown away. Nobody cared about tribal art. No museums wanted to keep them. They were considered unworthy. So he started collecting them,” says Shubhashini in a tremulous voice.
An art historian herself, Subhashini has co-authored 23 books with her father on folk and tribal art objects in India. Recently, she even published a new version of her original 2005 book — Unknown Masterpieces of Indian Folk and Tribal Art — that weighs three kilograms and is considered by many as the most comprehensive study on tribal and folk art.
Three decades later, Baij Nath and Subhashini are the sole custodians of the colossal collection and their home is brimming with artefacts — wooden statuettes, centuries old Jain art, metallic figurines, terracotta toys from the Harappan civilization, expressive and bold tribal gods’ masks, textiles, jewellery, manuscripts, over 300 mukhalingas (metallic sheaths of shivalingas with detailed facial features of Shiva), ritualistic objects and sculptures of local gods — at every nook and corner.
The siblings say their father’s books gathered many admirers from across different countries, and curious art historians and enthusiasts from far and wide often come to their doorsteps to catch a glimpse of the artefacts.
“Foreigners who come here spend at least four-five hours just being awestruck. But most people in Gurugram and Delhi are unaware of the museum, or little interested in the rich folk art history of India. Even the renowned Swedish-French architect Le Corbusier was once mesmerized by my father’s work,” grins Baij Nath.
Till 1984, the Aryans lived in Greater Kailash in Delhi. But their father’s quest for a larger home for the artefacts made the Aryans move to Gurugram. “He travelled from village to village, went to local hawkers, museums, palaces, temples to trace and find remnants of Indian folk and tribal art,” says Subhashini.
“His pursuit led him to incredible discoveries. One such was the lithographs of Amritsar. The ones my father found lay here, the only other ones are now at the London museum,” Baij Nath adds.
The siblings, however, believe that both they and their home are in the sunset years and the treasure of artefact stored in the house need a dedicated space to be saved for posterity.
Many historians and culture critiques who have come to know of KC Aryan’s collection over the years echo similar sentiments. Indian classicist, theatre theorist and cultural analyst Bharat Gupt said, “There should be a KC Aryan Museum of folk arts in the capital. His is an integral contribution to Indian history.”
The Aryan siblings, meanwhile, are confident that no one in the country has such a large repository of Indian folk and tribal art. At the entrance of the home of folk art is a wooden marriage post from Bastar, on the left wall hangs an overwhelming Narsimha wall art from Kerala, large vessels of an indiscernible metal lie in another corner, while a 19th century Gujarati handcrafted cloth forms a canopy over the living room lined with glass cupboards containing innumerable artefacts. Stunning 13th and 14th century Himachali Moharras give company to the hundreds of Hanuman masks in the adjacent cupboards while miniature and blackened metallic figurines performing daily chores lie in sharp contrast to the large and expressive ritualistic masks hung on the walls of the room.
Objects imbued in daily life and the vibrancy and vitality of folk idiom step out amid deities of tribal gods and votive offerings in every room of the house. Iron opium filters from Himachal Pradesh, an interesting array of leather bottle lid stoppers from Rajasthan, traditional headgear worn by men and women during marriage from Punjab, Harappan-era terracotta toys rescued from Lahore in pre-Partition India, give a peek into the lives these respective communities led.
For Baij Nath, this dynamism of folk and tribal art is what fascinates him.
Supporting Baij Nath’s concerns, Gupt elaborates that traditionally, Indian art did not make a distinction between classical and folk. This demarcation of high and low art, classical and folk art was an impact of colonialism.
He says, “Earlier, there was no hierarchy in art, but with the colonial empire and rise of the Indian Bourgeois, a trivialisation of native arts took place. In a vast country like ours, folk and tribal art are essential documenters of history and important aspect of national identity.”
Recounting stories of lectures given abroad, Baij Nath says he, too, had to challenge and battle the western perception of Indian folk artifact.
“There, they would call the fiercely animated masks of the tribal Gods ‘junglee art’. And these were all students of history. I had to remind them several times that these nuanced creations are, in no way, ‘junglee’ or barbaric. In fact, I told them they were works of dexterous hands and cultured minds,” he says.
Steeped in anguish about people’s lack of knowledge sources and national pride in Indian folk artefacts, and fighting constant doubt and fear about what will happen to the artefacts once they after them, the siblings are desperately seeking a permanent home for the art works. They say that finances remain a concern. “Imagine these figurines and these objects in proper museum showcases under proper lighting”, he says as his eyes light up.
It is this unadulterated passion and conviction that enabled the Aryan siblings to curate a two-month long exhibition of rare and unknown masterpieces of Himachali folk art in the National Museum.
At the inauguration of the exhibition, BR Mani, director general of the museum, had said, “It’s for the first time, the National Museum dedicated to classical arts is displaying pieces of folk and tribal art that have never been seen before. They hold immense value.”
The exhibition was inaugurated on June 7 by the Union minister of culture, Prahlad Singh Patel, and will be on till July 31. Patel, too, was unequivocal on the Aryans’ contribution to Indian history and culture.
He had said, “The fact that a family can invest their whole lives and all their earnings to preserve the folk and tribal arts of the country is unprecedented. I would say that both the government and the people of the nation should applaud and support their efforts.”
Travelling to and fro between the national museum and their Gurugram home — dusting, cleaning, maintaining, documenting the several thousand artefacts stored within the saffron walls by themselves — the siblings are immaculate in the upkeep of the artefacts.
Despite being fraught with age, financial limitations, spatial woes and an arduous task of finding a worthy home for their collection, the Aryan siblings show no sign of weariness.
“We don’t have the money to hold regular exhibitions and showcase them to the world. But these are a national treasure and must be kept for posterity. It’s not easy to maintain them. Many buyers with incredible sums come to me. But I will never ever sell even one of these. I will die a pauper, but not sell these,” Baij Nath concludes.