The museum as an institution is very contrived and colonial,” says art and cultural historian and museologist Jyotindra Jain. “The coloniser was very keen on knowledge projects on other cultures…In fact, early collections in Western museums were known as curiosities galleries”.
Kala Bhoomi in Bhubaneswar, an effort to compile and preserve the state’s local cultures, may prove to be the exception. Sprawled across roughly 13 acres in the state capital and set up by the Odisha government in collaboration with Jain, it brings together Odisha’s cultural diversity scattered across space and time. It is an ode to the skills of traditional local communities that are losing touch with the arts they practised and crafts they produced.
The museum’s entrance courtyard leads to the terrocatta display, the first of eight galleries. On display are terracotta artefacts, from votive horses of Keonjhar district to intricately designed variations of tulsi chauras (pedestals in which tulsi plants are grown). This gallery melds the quotidian with the quaint.
Visitors, wondering why modest cooking pots from Puri’s Shree Jagannath Temple are included in the display, are informed that these seemingly-ordinary pots are used to cook food for around 15,000 people every day. Piled on each other in high columns, they are placed in a way that the topmost pot cooks first and is removed before the one under it. The process is repeated till the pot at the bottom cooks, thereby saving enormous costs on fuel and firewood.
Each gallery carries exhibit labels that try to link the artefacts on display with the lived experiences of their creators. On the selection of items, Jain says, “The display at Kala Bhoomi does not come from a place of rigorous scholarship. Simple and interesting stories behind what may seem an ordinary item elevates a collection”.
The terracotta gallery leads to the traditional painting gallery, which displays Odisha’s iconic pattachitras — traditional scroll paintings on cloths that usually depict scenes from both mythological and folk narratives. Rashmi Ranjan Mahapatra, the guide stationed here, says he comes from a family that made a living from making pattachitra paintings.
“Pattachitra that is made in the old-fashioned way and is more valuable does not have smooth and straight outlines. When the outlines are a bit jagged, then we know that it has been made in the dim light of a poor artisan’s hut and is actually more valuable,” Rashmi says, adding that “duller tones in pattachitra colours signal the use of vegetable dyes and organic paint materials that are not just more labour intensive, but also last decades”.
Like Rashmi, almost all the guides at Kala Bhoomi come from families that practised the professional production of crafts on display. For them, each item is a repository of not just the realities of village-based community, family life and localised forms of worship, but also flights of imagination permitted within those social structures.
Each gallery also reveals the diversity of communities in the state. The metal crafts gallery alone makes visible multiple communities, such as Roopa Banias who worked on silver and the Kansari community that produced kansa basan (bell metal vessels).
The artefacts are immutable emblems of the intersection of local histories and ethnographies, communicating vibrant tales of palanquin bearers, cooks, barbers, carpenters, granary managers and accountants.
Kala Bhoomi’s traditional painting gallery opens into a massive “tribal courtyard” that features three galleries, each dedicated to the material used to produce crafts — stone and wood, metals and other natural materials. A deeper discussion on tribal jewellery reveals that most were, perhaps, not fashioned just for ornate usage — jewellery was actually protective gear that shielded the body from sharp weapons during wars. The tribal gallery, which features a significant amount of jewellery and weaponry, hints at the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and marks a sharp contrast with the agrarian economy of the caste Hindus.
Explaining why Kala Bhoomi emphasises on quality of public engagement through its careful selection of artefacts, expertise of guides and beautiful settings, Jain says, “I spent my life working with museums, but I believe museums never took root in India if you compare them with other colonial institutions like, say, cricket or the railways. Kala Bhoomi showcases Odisha, one of the rare states where traditional crafts of very high quality still exist.”
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