New Delhi, India
July 1, 2013
Of course we would, so the driver drew the car in beside a lovely triple-storeyed building, wood-panelled and with the sloping roofs, intricately carved pillars and balconies of traditional Keralan architecture. We got out, stepped into the tiny yard that surrounds the building, and were greeted by a young lady dressed in a cream-coloured cotton sari with a gold border, a very traditional Kerala sari. She sold us our tickets (Rs 100 per person, plus a further Rs 50 for the camera—this is an unusual museum in that photography is allowed everywhere).
Having first taken off our shoes (no footwear is allowed inside the museum), we stepped into the first large hall that comprises the bulk of the gallery on the ground floor. This came as a surprise to us, since we’d been expecting something along the lines of a ‘typical museum’—exhibits carefully arranged in chronological order, by function, by material used, etc. This, instead, was a merry hotchpotch of just about everything under the Keralan (or south Indian, since it’s not just confined to Kerala) sun.
As soon as we entered the room on the ground floor, for example, what we saw was a large painted wooden bull on the left, towering up behind a pair of massive urns (which turned out to be funeral urns), and lots of very varied items—medieval musical instruments; statues of deities or animals or humans in wood (both painted and unpainted), stone, etc; decorative furniture; puppets; jewellery; window screens and frames; votive items (some odd ones here, made of clay and shaped like male genitals—according to the label, these were offered at temples in an attempt to ensure male progeny!); intricately carved doorways; masks; and much more. It’s all a higgledy-piggledy clutter, but well-dusted, mostly fairly decently labelled, and quite fascinating.
What is also fascinating is that all of the artefacts in this museum—over 4,000 of them, ranging from over a period of 1,000 years—form part of the collection of a single individual. In a country like India, where collections of art and artefacts are generally jealously guarded when in private hands, this came as quite a surprise to us.
From the ground floor, we made our way up the stairs to the first floor. The stairs, both here and to the second floor, are lined with interesting old portraits and photographs—one that really drew my attention was an interesting one of East-meet-West: a traditional Tamilian lady, clad in sari et al, in the early 1900s, standing holding a bicycle by its bars. Very modern, yet very traditional too.
As on the ground floor, on the first floor too, a large hall occupies most of the space, and is filled with a mishmash of artefacts. The difference here is that most of it is on sale. Do note: these aren’t really old or really valuable antiques. The bulk of them, from the hurried glimpse we got before moving on to more interesting things, consists of turn-of-the-century picture postcards, photographs, painted crockery, and other Victorian bric-a-brac. We didn’t see the price tags, but I’m guessing they were not cheap.
The more interesting stuff on the first floor—and not on sale—are costumes, masks and props used in traditional Keralan performing arts. These include the elaborate costumes and headgear worn for Kathakali performances, and the distinctive costumes of Theyyam. The latter is also known for the intricate and very striking red, orange and black patterns the dancers paint on their faces; these are depicted on masks alongside the costumes.
Finally, up another staircase (also lined, like the one below it, with old photos), and we arrived at the topmost floor of the building. This isn’t a gallery of the museum, but is, instead, an auditorium where performances of traditional performing arts of Kerala—Kathakai among them—are held in the evenings. We’d arrived hours too early to watch a performance, so we contented ourselves with admiring the carved wooden pillars and beams, and the lovely painted wooden panels that form the walls of this hall.
The Kerala Folklore Museum, despite its huge collection, doesn’t take too long to see—we spent less than an hour here—mainly because it’s all rather cluttered, and while the labelling is adequate, it doesn’t offer a huge amount of information. It was an interesting collection, but the feeling that it’s been put together in an amateurish way lingered with us long after we’d emerged.
From journal Outside Fort Cochin - and Beyond