Through the desserts of Rajasthan, the woods of the North-East, the villages of West Bengal and the tribal belt of Orissa, right down to the temple arts of the south, Mini Chandran Kurian has put together in a book ethnic art, customs and pastimes that today form an integral part of the heritage of our nation.
Folk Yatra, the 139-page coffee table book with over 120 photographs, brings to life the travellling Bhopa and Bhopi storytellers of Rajasthan who use a bright, hand-painted scroll and lights to illustrate their tales; the tradition of the ganjiffa playing cards (the cards are circular and the rules of the game change depending on the time of the day); the garudan dancers in Kerala, the quilt-makers of Gujarat; even a young man in Assam who gave up a job at a bank to make bamboo cutlery.
Folk Yatra: The book brings to life a universe that thrives beyond the urban bubble that we live in
While some of these skills may die out there are others that have been nurtured and supported by organizations that have enabled artists to put their art to commercial use to sustain themselves. Kurian spoke to Lounge about travelling for the book, the most memorable characters and her next book on Indian kitchens. Edited excerpts:
How and why did you conceive the idea of this book?
It all began with this report on intangible culture that I had to tabulate, and a nine-day stint in Banaras (Varanasi) that I undertook for the Taj group of hotels. I stayed by the ghats, took the early morning cruise down the river and met the weavers and Kathak dancers of Banaras, many of whom still did their riyaz faithfully despite the fact that there were hardly any actual stage performances that came their way. I realized that their hereditary art meant so much to them, it gave them a sense of identity. I was humbled by their commitment to their passion to keep a legacy alive. As a writer, this is what I could do for them.
How did the compiling of this book enrich you?
It changed me as a person. This is the most meaningful book I have done because it is about real people whose simplicity and sincerity is incredible. They bring so much dignity to what they do that they have no existential crisis. I also realized that there is a world outside this urban bubble that we all live in, where people lead meaningful lives and have a place in society that must be respected.
How open are these artists to commercialization to save their art?
They are very sincere to their art. If commercialization means changing the traditional format to incorporate elements that are merely sensational, they won’t do it. The Bhat, for instance, will never sing about anything but the epics. He will never misrepresent facts in his Book of Records, even if some family pays him for it. I think that’s because they believe that theirs is a divine art, and a hereditary art, and they would not want to anger either the deities or their ancestors.
Mini Chandran Kurian, the author of the book
How has commercialization influenced their work?
Well, sometimes they may use new machines in printing, or accept new modern designs in textile craft, but I don’t think they will change the fundamentals ever— especially in the performing arts. Commercialization works only to the extent of holding demonstrations for tourists, which is a legitimate way of earning a little money. But none of the artists I met will change the format or context of their art.
Which according to you is the quirkiest art to find mention in the book?
The Bhat: All he does is trace your family tree. He knows the intimate details of the lives of over 200 families. He can trace their line back at least 300 years. He is highly respected in the villages he visits. And he travels on a camel like a king—ponderous and stately. He makes a few thousand rupees for his effort, but he is also paid in kind—like he is given new clothes, a blanket sometimes, and foodgrain. He is a very contented man.
Any experience or someone who touched you in a special way?
Their generosity is unforgettable. All they have to offer is their art, and that they are very generous with. They are willing to do a painting or craft a bell and give it to you. Even the garudan who does a votive offering to the Bhagvathy on behalf of people, was willing to demonstrate for me—he was willing to have a hook inserted through his back (which is the climax of his performance) to show me how he performs it. I refused to have this done but was deeply moved by his offer.
Weaving magic: AS Peer Mohammad weaves mats from the wild kora grass that grows along river banks in Tamil Nadu
Are there any stories that you came across but could not include in the book?
Many. The Chhau masked dance of Purulia, the Chamba rumaal of Himachal Pradesh, the sholapith craft of Bengal, and the Gondhal of Maharashtra. I had researched these and met the artists too; but due to lack of space in the book I could not include them in this volume. But I am working on a second volume of Folk Yatra (it is part of a series titled Indian Legacy), and they will all be there.
Kitchen Tales–The Cultural Diversity of India is the next in the Indian Legacy series. This book offers glimpses of the diversity of cultural expression that marks the Indian kitchen. It’s about the little food quirks of Indian communities, the choice of ingredients and seasonings, the idiomatic expressions and culinary phrases that are so evocative of the food culture of India.
The book, published by Jil and the Beanstalk and priced at Rs700, will be available at leading bookstores from Monday.