Envisioned by Komal Kothari, renowned folklorist and ethnomusicologist, to exhibit and bring about public engagement with the folk culture and oral traditions he had spent his life documenting for Rupayan Sansthan, Arna Jharna: The Thar Desert Museum was established in 2000. Kothari waited until he found the perfect spot, Arna Jharna (‘forest and spring’), in the village of Moklawas, about 15 kilometres from Jodhpur city. Encompassing a rocky outcrop and a ravine, which includes an old stone quarry turned watershed, commanding breathtaking views of the rocky plains of the scrubland, the location showcases the severe beauty of the Marwar region of Rajasthan.
Built in the local style of village architecture, Arna Jharna evokes the romance of nomadism with open-air music performances by local groups and artistes of the region. It also houses a matchless collection of folk musical instruments unique to western South Asia, including the jantar, jogia sarangi and nagfani, which are no longer used or produced. Rupayan Sansthan is presently raising funds for a research project linking the musical instruments in its collection with musical traditions available as recordings in its audio-video archive.
The ‘living museum’, through displays such as that of different kinds of brooms and pottery, gives visitors a glimpse into not only the labour and skills of the local communities but also the world of rituals and beliefs associated with these objects of daily life. These humble objects are rooted in the local ecology and traditional knowledge systems of the region. This is the reason Komal Kothari chose the broom, an inconspicuous object of fundamental importance in our lives, as the flagship concept for a museum collection. The Broom Project was supported by Ford Foundation, India.
Besides the Arna Jharna museum, Rupayan Sansthan manages an archive in Jodhpur city consisting of an extensive corpus, 7,078 hours, of audio-video recordings and a small, but significant, collection of photos from the areas of folklore, performing arts, sustainable living, indigenous knowledge, and arts and crafts. Over the years, Rupayan Sansthan has come to have a special association with the performing arts of Rajasthan, which has evolved within the wider framework of cultural engagement refined by Komal Kothari. Traditionally, the theme of regional culture is subsumed under the majoritarian concept of the nation state. The archive and the museum, on the other hand, offer a more profound understanding of the unique folk culture and regional identity of Rajasthan by documenting the life, leisure and labour of the people of the desert.
Eminent scholars from around the world, such as Dr John D. Smith (Emeritus Reader, Cambridge University), Prof. Susan Wadley (Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and Director, South Asia Center, Syracruse University), Prof. Ann Gridzen Gold (Thomas J. Watson Professor, Religion, and Professor, Anthropology, Syracruse University), Vibeke Homma, Prof. Daniel Neuman (Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music and Interim Director of the Herb Alpert School of Music, University of California) and Dr Subha Chaudhari (Archive and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, Gurgaon) have long been associated with Rupayan Sansthan and have made use of the archive.