On June 22nd, the team at TheISRO conducted a research field trip to Janapada Loka, a folk museum in Ramanagara, on the Bangalore-Mysore highway. Established in 1994 under the aegis of the Karnataka Janapada Parishat by H. L. Nage Gowda, Janapada Loka exhibits a vast display of village folk arts and artefacts of Karnataka.
With The I.S.R.O’s foray into archiving through building LEKHA, an art archival platform, this visit was intended to understand current practices of maintaining such large collections and identify possible opportunity areas, especially in the digitisation of artefacts and exhibits, which could possibly impact design decisions about the structure of LEKHA.
This post was written by Nithya Kirti M, with inputs from Arkoprabho Bhattacharjee
H. L. Nage Gowda (1915-2005) was a civil servant and folklorist who dedicated the latter half of his life towards preserving folk traditions, arts and artefacts. His interest in museums had an early start in Shimoga, where he set up a district museum in the 1970s. The initial collection of folk objects displayed at his office-cum-residence was later shifted to the museums in Janapada Loka when this site was purchased; the larger space fuelled the growth of the collection.
After being greeted by the swans and monkeys on the lush green property, our tour began with a brief introduction to the museum by Mr. Ravi, who explained that most of the artefacts displayed in the museum were sourced directly from people across Karnataka, with each object representing its user and having symbolic value as a product of an earlier era.
Janapada Loka is divided into various museum spaces and sections- Lokamatha Mandira, Loka Mahal, Chitra Kuteera, Doddamane, Shilamala, etc.
Chitra Kuteera is a gallery space, with the inner room themed around H.L Nage Gowda’s life and exhibits his belongings, such as his sunglasses, radio, walking stick, original manuscripts for books, photographs. The outer walkway consists of a photo gallery of various folk activities from around Karnataka. Mr. Ravi showed us the reference number markings on each of the exhibited pictures, which allow for their easy indexing in the archive.
A tour of the Lokamatha Mandira introduced us to various types of rural household items and agricultural and husbandry tools - hooks, pickle jars, cooking vessels, salt containers, harvesting tools, huge grain storage jars, among other things. Mr. Ravi particularly went into great detail to describe the significance of the cowbells on display- each unique bell and the sound it made would act like a message or an alert to the farmer who may be far away, regarding the animal’s activity- for example, the sound a bell produces while a cow is walking is different from when it runs or grazes. Similarly, a calf gets a more higher pitched bell tied to its neck to distinguish it in a herd. We captured the sounds made by each of those bells along with Mr. Ravi’s explanation with a Zoom microphone, with the intention of exploring possibilities of digitising the experience of interacting with the bells.
The Shilamala or ‘Shilpamaala’ is a sculpture yard in front of a Ganesha temple on the premises, that contains sculptures and rocks with inscriptions, dating back thousands of years. One of the rocks consists of a grant inscription, giving permission for the construction of a tank, dated 1700 AD. As an experiment for digitisation, we made a 3D scan of this particular rock inscription (view here). Of late, we, at The I.S.R.O., have been experimenting with accessible 3D technologies. With the assistance of tools like Three.js and Polycam, we can display realistic 3D renders of actual physical objects on a web browser; the scanning of these objects can be done simply using an iPad.
Our next stop was at the Loka Mahal. This wing of the museum housed large, life-sized dolls of traditional folk art performers and characters from various folk stories and art forms, showcased in their traditional attire, ornaments, and jewellery as well as traditional toys. In contrast to these large dolls were puppets, both normal wooden ones as well as shadow puppets made from three kinds of skins. The double-storied building was our last stop before a rather sumptuous and authentic North Karnataka thali meal at Kamat Lokaruchi which is next-door to Janapada Loka.
Post lunch, we resumed our tour, being on the look out for stories or artifacts that could possibly become archival material. We 3D scanned the aforementioned cowbells as well as a life-sized wooden chariot horse in Loka Mahal (view here). This activity also gave us a sense of the time commitments needed to undertake such a process at a larger scale as well as the lighting conditions and tools necessary to carry out accurate scanning in a portable way.
H.L. Nage Gowda was keen on assembling all types of rural occupational equipment, which represented specific communities and their inherited trades. The collected equipment found place in the recreation of village scenes in the premises, such as a dedicated potter’s place with pottery for sale, a sugarcane crushing unit, oil extraction unit, etc. Furthermore, the entire property that houses Janapada Loka is strewn with sculptures of working men, women, and animals from the past.
Our penultimate stop was at the amphitheater where Mr. Mallayya, an employee at the museum who comes from a long line of folk singers, regaled us with his performance. Narrating the story of Banjayyamma, a childless woman, who prays to Shiva for a child, he accompanies his singing with beats played on a traditional hand drum made out of the skin of a Monitor lizard, which he crafts by himself. We had the privilege of recording his performance on a Zoom microphone and wish to explore novel, digital representations of the same.
Before heading back from Janapada Loka, we were invited to view their private archive/storage of artefacts. It was housed in two large rooms in a slightly dilapidated building, overlooking the pond. At the entrance stood a gargantuan statue of Nandi, the bull, along with some harvesting equipment. The storage contains the same kind of items in bulk as represented in the museums and included old swords, rusty armor and delicate manuscripts, among other things.
In order to inform our ongoing research into creating a metadata and cataloging plan for LEKHA, we explored the archiving process of the museum. The museum first acquires items by advertising for the same, which encourages people to donate old and traditional items not being used anymore. The process contains separate books for accession, storage and museum records, which we had the privilege to look at. An item, when received, is cataloged under simple fields, with information about the source, the person who donated it and the item’s significance along with a reference number. These records are now being digitised in a similar format.
Dhruva Gowda Storz, a key technical member of The I.S.R.O who leads the development of LEKHA, also happens to be the grandson of H.L Nage Gowda. Reflecting on this recent visit, he said, "Having grown up visiting Janapada Loka, and having seen all the artefacts housed within the museum several times, I found it incredibly interesting to now see them again from the perspective of an archivist. Apart from having access to a lot more material within storage than the standard visitor would, we had the unique opportunity to dive deep into individual objects and approach these objects from many angles in deciding how best to archive them. In particular, the most interesting aspect of our trip to me were the myriad stories surrounding a series of frugal cowbells, and the histories that these stories foreshadowed, as well as the insights into rural technology that would be lost if our archival methods were limited to simply the visual appearance and metadata of these objects."
In conclusion, it was reassuring to see a piece of history, captured and conserved in the time capsule that is Janapada Loka. The field trip particularly highlighted the power of engaging and situated storytelling, rooted in the smallest of artefacts. It was also reassuring to observe that there was still a lot that we, as designers and technologists, could contribute to the preservation of disappearing cultures and traditions. We look forward to exploring the possibilities that new technologies and approaches can create in archiving, as we seek to disrupt traditional archival approaches.