It’s a wind-swept evening and foreign tourists, at the entrance to the National Museum, in the heart of the Capital, are busy clicking photographs of a monkey feasting on a mango skin. Inside, a flight of stairs leads to the special exhibition hall where Unknown Masterpieces Of Himachal Folk Art is on display.

It contains 240 artefacts of folk, tribal and neglected art—some from the National Museum collection, but 230 of them from the Museum of Folk and Tribal Art, Gurugram, founded by painter -art historian K.C. Aryan in 1984.

One’s eye is drawn immediately to a series of wooden plaques and votive panels. The most striking of these is an 18th century plaque depicting a female dancer with raised hands, from Malana. “The locals would often pray to God, asking for a wish to be fulfilled. And when that would come to pass, they would get a panel carved from the local craftsman as an offering. Often, they would leave it in the courtyard. You will be shocked to know that some of these exquisite panels would perish or be consigned to flames by the temple authorities," says Baij Nath Aryan, who has been taking care of his father’s collection since his death in 2002, and has curated this exhibition.

He believes there is no parallel collection in the country. And it seems the National Museum authorities agree. “He (K.C. Aryan) founded the museum in Gurugram after having collected folk materials from different parts of India, especially from Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, which he started collecting during the 1940s and went on documenting and writing on them with a view to disseminate the information, and with the idea to get this heritage preserved for posterity," writes B.R. Mani, director general of the museum, in the catalogue.

For over 60 years, Aryan systematically collected wooden and bronze icons, mohras (plaques), wooden masks of the Phagli festival, celebrated in the last month of winter, stone carvings and the Pahari rumal. “While he was living in a tiny village in Palampur, as a migrant from Lahore, he was enamoured by the vibrance and spontaneity of Himachali folk art. After all, folk art is the mother of all arts," says Baij Nath.

It saddens him that even now, only the miniatures of Pahari schools such as Kangra, Guler, Basholi, Mandi, Chamba and Bilaspur are known. “There are so many misconceptions related to Himachali folk art. People wrongly categorize all Pahari rumals as Chamba rumal. This form is practised all over Himachal. There is the maroonish one-sided rumal from Mandi and the double-sided ones from Chamba," says Baij Nath. “These had never been categorized properly before. He wrote 23 scholarly books on such subjects at a time when the focus was on classical art."

A four-armed Durga on her mount (bronze, Kullu, late 18th century). Courtesy: B.N. Aryan
A four-armed Durga on her mount (bronze, Kullu, late 18th century). Courtesy: B.N. Aryan

As one moves around the hall, the primitive wooden masks come into view. There is a Hanuman mask from the 18th century and one from the Shimla hills from the 19th century. Also on display are rare Ram Leela masks, made of papier-mâché.

Some of the folk bronzes were acquired by Aryan from scrap shops. At one point, these were melted to make door handles. “Can you imagine this beautiful Narasimha, a 10th century bronze from Chamba, being melted away?" asks Baij Nath. “Or this eight-armed Durga Mahishasura Mardiniyes, a 12th-13th century bronze from Kullu, executed in the post-Gupta style?"

Unknown Masterpieces Of Himachal Folk Art is on view till 31 July at National Museum, Delhi.

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