Of Rani Abbakka And A Couple’s Tapasya To Preserve Coastal Karnataka’s ‘Tulu’ Cultural Heritage Through An Ethnographic Museum
The intangible tales told by tangible objects of yore.
A unique ‘material objects’ museum and its curator have so much to tell about the life, culture, habits, practices of coastal Karnataka and its people, that each facet would make for a research dissertation on its own.
She was the first queen to stand tall against the Portuguese and fight them repeatedly, yet very little is known of Rani Abbakka of Ullal in our history books as she has been relegated to the domain of folk memory and tales of foreign visitors.
When one visits Ullal now, the demography gives no hints of its once glorious past as a fortress guarded by this fierce warrior woman whose hands-on governance is hailed by local folklore.
But in a by-lane of Bantwal taluk, off the Mangalore- Bangalore highway stands a tall structure befittingly carrying her name that also hosts an art gallery where Abbakka comes alive on canvas as envisioned by various artists. The mammoth structure is the Rani Abbakka Tulu Adhyayana Kendra and Tulu Baduku (life and living) museum, which stands as a tribute to the great warrior queen and is the only 'ethnographic museum on Tuluva culture'.
A visit to the gallery that I thought would be yet another stack of objects from a bygone era turned out to be an encounter with a past that is a treasure trove of tales unlimited. This effort by Professor Tukarama Poojary and his wife Prof Ashalatha Suvarna invites any culture and heritage enthusiast to come 'engage with the objects and hear them talk' as he says.
The professor couple have dedicated their lives to the cause of telling history through material objects and the tales they tell. "Every single object here will talk to you and tell you way more than what history books can ever tell," says Poojary as he takes you on a tour of the Tulu Baduku Museum.
The first object he picks is a unique wooden rattler of sorts which he tells us is an instrument used to chase tigers in ancient times. "The region was predominantly inhabited by Jain households who believe in ahimsa and wouldn't hunt animals. Hence this device when rotated makes a shrill rattling noise and a tiger is said to fear the loud noise and go away," he explains as he demonstrates its working.
Disappearance of these everyday objects meant not just a change in times but also the annihilation of an entire set of cultural practices, and it's like one shut the window to the life of an entire era, he opines. Countless such objects are housed in an entire floor that then opens out to a gallery that has a model Tulunadu house, various agricultural tools, a recreated kitchen with various storage containers, and time measuring instruments, among others.
Time comes to a standstill as one hears Poojary narrate the various adages involved with each of these objects and draw parallels between objects, their usage, and oral traditions and the logic behind various beliefs and practices.
From a bronze comb to the traditional wooden cradle that had separate wood for separate parts, to the remnants picked up from Badaga Kambekar, a megalithic site in Bantwal, to the entire lineage of various steam vessels and their evolution and the tales behind them, one savours endless awe-inspiring moments at this cocoon of cultural delight.
The wooden cradle used wood from five different trees for five different parts depending on various factors and the tales of its making are known only to four to five communities. "This tells us who the original inhabitants of this land were and who were migrants," he elucidates, as he then points out to a special cradle for twins.
"Academic and documented history tell only one part of the tale while material objects can reveal various other facets which may go unnoticed otherwise," says Poojary, emphasising the need for greater research involving material culture of Tulunadu.
It is his long pending wish that this effort is scaled up with the government making way for a heritage village that can not just preserve "what we have inherited but also ensure we give our future generations a living experience of our glorious past". But sadly, until now, the effort has seen not much support from the government, irrespective of the parties in power.
Although it hasn't deterred the couple from adding to the grandeur of this mega effort, who also host various seminars, publish the proceedings and various books, conduct educative sessions for students and visitors apart from adding to the treasure already collected.
And they owe it all, says Poojary, to the inspiration for all of it, Rani Abbakka, after whom the centre is named.
The seed was a thought that was sown in Poojary way back in his college days by a freedom fighter Yelluru Umesh Rao who asked him what he knew of Abbakka, who despite her indigenous ways of war and being the 'first freedom fighter' never made it to textbooks or elsewhere. This got Poojary, who has dedicated the folk museum to Rao, to name the centre, which was formally inaugurated in January 1995, after the brave queen.
While one floor hosts a library and a numismatic gallery that is under curation, the first floor brings alive the saga of the two Abbakkas of the coast who set an example with their administration and the way they held fort against the Portuguese.
And this recapturing of the life and times of a woman warrior who has lived only in the accounts of foreign travellers and folk narratives was done through a five day national level painting camp ten years ago.
Twenty-four artists brought the descriptions of various international chroniclers and folk tales to life to create the entire saga of the reign of Rani Abbakka.
Visitors are treated to a parallel narration of the life and conquests of the queen, highlighting her beliefs, her principles and her choices, which wrote the fate of the region different from those that gave in to the foreign traders.
While the large basement unfolds eras after eras of Tuluva culture through everyday objects that have been collected over decades and arranged in a way that the tale flows seamlessly across eras, Poojary is saddened by the lack of awareness among people and the dearth of importance in the political class across parties to conserve the rich heritage of the region.
A land grant of say 25 acres would make way for a large heritage village wherein we could then showcase it in a way that people of all ages could have exposure to these testimonials of time and its evolution. "At present we don't permit very young children as they wont be able to understand by just watching a stack of objects. We need to curate a larger display that puts the object into the context of usage," he reiterates, remarking that repeated pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Remembering renowned writer Shivaram Karant's words when they set out to make a film on Rani Abakka, he says, "unless you recreate the ambience of the sixteenth century, how will you transport people to those times".
"A museum has no end, I have to keep collecting objects, they have to be curated, the collected articles have to be maintained, the tasks are many," he says, inviting us to another visit to come hear, more objects talk and share their tales. Surely, decades worth of ongoing efforts need much more attention and appreciation from people and the system alike.
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