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The house of forgotten art

For over 30 years, a regular Gurugram home has housed a priceless, yet little-known collection of tribal and folk Indian art. Now its keepers are looking for a permanent space

Baij Nath Aryan with his siter Subhashini at their residence-cum-museum. Photographs: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Baij Nath Aryan with his siter Subhashini at their residence-cum-museum. Photographs: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Baij Nath Aryan wants to be immortal. He shakes back his wispy, flyaway white curls as he leans forward to declare this, hugging a particularly expressive brass mukhalinga (a sheath for Shiva lingas, usually engraved with the Hindu god’s facial features). “I want to be immortal so that I can see this sort of beauty around me every day," he says. He sets the antique back down between roughly 100 other such pieces that his late father, artist and sculptor K.C. Aryan collected from the north Karnataka region.

This collection of mukhalingas, some of them dating back to the 18th century, takes up a portion of one floor in the Aryan home in Gurugram, near Delhi, that BN—as he is better known—shares with his sister Subhashini. The zero-security, two-storeyed house has more than 33,000 other artefacts: textiles and Tantric art hung on the walls, sculptures, terracotta figurines, wooden statuettes and toys stored in scores of glass-paned Godrej bureaux or lining the staircases. Some of them go back as far as 2 BC.

The sexagenarian siblings are the sole custodians of this enormous collection, which their father began putting together in the 1950s. A recognized mid-century painter who won an award from the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1964, KC—as he was better known—abandoned his art practice to buy and collect folk and tribal artefacts to encourage and preserve these traditions. “He wanted to showcase the fact that undivided Punjab, where he grew up, had more to culture than agriculture," says BN, of his father’s initial motivation.

Their living room lined with artefacts

By 1984, when KC moved to Gurugram and set up the Museum of Folk and Tribal Art (also sometimes referred to as the Museum of Folk, Tribal, and Neglected Art) at his own residence, the initial focus had broadened to encompass indigenous art from across the country. Gurugram then was far removed from the concrete jungle it is today but, as you push open the iron gate to the 500 sq. yard property, you could be forgiven for thinking you have stepped back in time. Past the somewhat unkempt front yard, a 20th century wooden marriage post from Bastar stands at the main door to the house, which can only be visited by prior appointment. Step in, and there are a handful of Himachali votive panels depicting the goddess Durga on the walls, besides variously shaped metal horns used at large gatherings such as the Kullu Dussehra festival. Hanuman masks of all sizes from across South Asia are mounted on the wall facing the front door, three long strides away.

A brown wooden door, engraved with folk motifs and designed by KC in collaboration with a Rajasthani artist, leads to the next room. BN immediately points to a crude sculpture. “It’s very difficult to understand the beauty and significance of this piece, but this is one of the most important pieces in our collection. A simple 19th century Himachali temple door guardian, barring evil spirits with a stick," he says, pausing to draw a sharp breath before adding: “This is the height of folk art. It is not taught in academic colleges or institutions, and if it is (taught) now, well…." He dismisses the thought.

“Folk art is unique in its primitiveness, its simplicity, and its naivety, made by the deft hands of common, everyday people. It is something that comes from beyond just imagination, you see," he says, pointing to two wooden panels, both approximately 12x8 inches, one featuring a devotee paying obeisance with folded hands and the other, a devotee with a drummer. More such panels, slightly larger in size, all from the first quarter of the 20th century, crowd a corner. Made with close to minimal depth perception, these panels from Kinnaur depict scenes from everyday life: people sitting in a balcony, women tending cows. “Just so spontaneous, without any formal training. No conventionalism here," BN says.

KC also noticed the gradual disappearance of many everyday objects he had played with as a child in Amritsar, in undivided Punjab, and later had around him as a young man when he set up his first studio in Lahore in the early 1940s. From rattles and whistles to cymbals and tops, he determined them to be design inheritances from the Indus Valley civilization and made a special trip to Lahore to retrieve some specimens, says BN. The collection takes pride of place in the room where we are now.

“This was Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s favourite section," says BN, recalling the great Pakistani poet’s visit to their previous home in Delhi’s Greater Kailash in the late 1970s. Faiz and KC were friends and contemporaries, born just eight years apart. “He was very appreciative of my father’s effort to preserve these objects from their childhood."

Figurines dating back to 2 BC.

In a house overrun by rare and precious objects, one section is closed off by a faded cotton curtain. A pressure-cooker whistle interrupts the faint strains of classical instrumental music and, a little later, Subhashini pushes aside the curtain to shuffle in. An art historian retired from Delhi University and co-writer of her father’s scholarly books and articles, besides many of the museum’s own publications, she is also the author of the mammoth Unknown Masterpieces Of Indian Folk And Tribal Art, available at the National Museum in Delhi, among other places. Small and frail, her eyes behind the chunky glasses speak louder than her voice.

“When he set up this place, my father was greatly inspired by the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum," Subhashini says. The museum in Pune was set up by a collector, Dinkar Kelkar, in memory of his young son Raja. A tribute to everyday life in India, it showcases writing tools, musical instruments and paintings from the region dating back to the 17th century, and has artefacts from the Peshwa dynasty. In 1975, Kelkar handed over the collection to the Maharashtra government’s department of archaeology.

However, “no one has taken such interest (in KC’s collection)," Subhashini says. Even Delhi-based gallerists like Sunaina Anand, founder-director of Art Alive, which has hosted several exhibitions on folk and tribal art over the years, have not heard of the museum. “This is the first I’m hearing of it, quite honestly," she says.

A brass Hanuman face.

And yet, there seems to be no end to the wonders tucked away in this unpretentious house. BN’s own room displays art objects close to his heart: two of his father’s works (one, a historical painting, and the other a small, futuristic work made of steel mesh). A mid-19th century bird lamp from Bali hangs there as well. The adjacent bathroom, unused, is stacked with dusty old research material and catalogues. Just underneath one of the K.C. Aryan works is a cream reed mat. “That’s where I sleep," BN says.

Statuettes and panels line the staircase leading up to the second-storey room with the mukhalingas, accessible through a door painted by a Kangra folk artist. Some of the mukhalingas are unpolished. A brass Bhairava form is especially resplendent, while another, more rustic-looking Shiva looks a little dull. “Next time you come, the boy who helps me will have cleaned this one too," BN says. The siblings, who have no families of their own, used to clean, dust and polish the artefacts themselves. Age, though, is taking a toll on their dedication.

A view of BN’s room and the mat on which he sleeps.

“Art (of any kind) is usually very fragile. It’s quite a responsibility to maintain it," notes Smriti Rajgarhia-Bhatt, a curator at the Swaraj Art Archive in Noida, adjacent to Delhi. Set up in 2013, the archive aims to look after and display a vast personal collection of Kalighat paintings, Bengal school art and British Indian prints belonging to the family of art collector Vijay Agarwal. “Not everybody is able to provide environmentally controlled space, which is important for art to be well-maintained," she adds.

Rajgarhia-Bhatt, who acknowledges K.C. Aryan as “one of the forgotten masters of Indian art", too had no idea of his extensive collection.

BN has multiple other commitments. He consults for other collectors and museums and travels to deliver lectures both in India and abroad: It ensures an income for the siblings; through their working lives, most of their money went towards the upkeep of their collection.

A shelf filled with metal ‘mukhalingas’.

KC died in 2002. Last year, the Kerala government expressed interest in hosting his collection in a new tribal heritage museum that is to come up in Wayanad. But the Aryans would prefer a permanent, dedicated space for their heritage in a more cosmopolitan location. Till that happens, they are in talks with some museums in Delhi for thematic exhibits of select works.

“To have art dilapidate and die is to let context and repositories of history die," says Rajgarhia-Bhatt. “One has the responsibility to preserve, conserve, and ensure the availability of art to the people, to let them know what was made as a response to various stages of history." In adding the phrase “neglected art" to the name of his museum, this is essentially what K.C. Aryan seems to have set out to do. It remains to be seen which of his collection’s suitors takes up his cause.

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