The Legacy of Komal Kothari

(March 4, 1929 – April 20, 2004)

Komal Kothari, the acknowledged doyen of Rajasthani culture, who set up the Rupayan Sansthan with the eminent writer Vijay dan Detha more than 25 years ago, the recipient of innumerable awards including the Padma Bhushan this year, passed away in Jodhpur on 20th of April, 2004.

“Komal da” was a phenomenon. He was an institution in himself. Komal Kothari ethnologist, folk historian, musicologist, cultural anthropologist, researcher of socio-political processes, a development analyst, a patient instructor in music and knowledge, eluded classification. He was a rare combination of tremendous gifts and complete humility. His natural rhythm of work touched thousands of lives.

As a friend, teacher, mentor, guru, a dogged pursuer after truth, he blended traditional and informal methods of sharing knowledge with a distinctly modern sense of equality. His mind was always seeking answers, discovering patterns, delving into the causal patterns behind the façade of ordinary things. Many of us have been enriched in the texture of our understanding in our association with him. He will live on in many minds that will now think differently, with greater sensitivity.

When I first met this apparently simple man more than twenty years ago, dressed in a white pajama and kurta, chewing pan, hair unkempt, with piercing but compassionate eyes, there began a learning relationship of an extraordinary kind. Komal da’s answers to a simple question, was the evolution of an intricate pattern, where knowledge of culture, agriculture, tradition and social conditions combined unfailingly to provide surprising insights. I remember a cold winter morning in Tilonia, where a Lok Utsav was being held in 1984. He was sitting over a cup of tea and someone started talking about the “impurity” of the left hand in Indian tradition. Komalda casually- he wore his knowledge lightly- expounded the most interesting theory of the use of the hands in pottery, cooking, crafts and finally we came to music. He talked of musical instruments, drawing our attention to the fact that the left hand does the more intricate work, brings quality to the music. The right only strums. Maybe the taboos associated with the left have to be argued differently. What he said that day has profoundly changed my perception in many ways of the ‘politics’ of the hands. We went on an intricate journey of connectedness, learning with the stream of consciousness that flowed from a perceptive mind, the interconnectedness of all cultural expression.

For him culture was not merely defined within the narrow confines of the performing arts. In the last two years he was planning and creating an alternative museum, where the heritage of people would be re-created with the brooms and pots, pans and tools that have helped create history.

Komal da

I have always gone to see Komal da with a sense of expectancy, like a great musician or a person of wisdom. Even when I met him at the ICU, a month ago he was full of ideas. He was insistent that the museum will have no feudal overtones, in architecture or in the items on display. The museum would not be for the exotic, for the tourist. Even in the choice of stones we make a political statement. There would be no communal overtones, in this museum. It could not be otherwise for a man who had lived his life establishing the common musical heritage of Hindus and Muslims. Breaking barriers of untouchability in bringing together the valmiki drummer and the kanjars in the chakri dance, eating with them all. Treating them as great artists, he also made a protest against the arbitrary comparison between the classical and other folk forms, placing ‘folk’ at the bottom of a hierarchy.

He was a practical person and a great researcher. He went to fundamentals of an issue. If it was the kamaicha, the wood, the strings, the instrument maker, the national boundary which has left the musicians on one side and the instrument maker on the other, were all matters to be addressed. For him therefore, the purely aesthetic had no place in his museum and in his world. It could never be a place of awe, making people feel unwelcome.

His last dream has not been physically created, where brooms and items of household utility, will prove a bigger point about feudalism and the skewed writing of history, than many political statements. It will establish more firmly his life long struggle and his success, in making folk traditions establish their right to cultural equality. Just as he made it possible for the Langas and Manginihars to perform with Yehudi Mehuin, Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain, the museum will establish the right of the modest broom, to a place next to the exotic bronze sculpture!

Komalda we thank you, for the knowledge you shared with us, for the privilege of receiving your love and time, we promise you that we will contribute our little bit to realize your dream.

Aruna Roy

(Written in 2004)