ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY stumble upon an open-air museum near Raipur that offers an insight into Central India’s little known arts and crafts
An army of fierce tribal warriors in horned headgear, dancers and drummers carved in metal and towering terracotta figures stood under the blazing sun. The high compound walls of Purkhauti Muktangan were inked with godna or ancient tattoo designs. A face, a bird, pot bearers, musicians… we counted over 30 floral, human and geometric forms chiselled on one black wooden pole. Walls transformed into story books in painted folk tales, quirky jalis (window lattices) shaped with clay dolls, monkeys and birds besides 3D wall relief depicting children on a swing and schools of fish.
We stepped into a world capturing the essence of Chhattisgarh’s diverse cultural heritage through art. The unique open-to-sky 200-acre campus offers the freedom to appreciate the genius of rural artistic expression and interact with craftsmen. Most installations were exposed to the elements, almost in a tribute to the tribes who worship nature. Dogs, monkeys and stick figures melded between tiny pennants on gateways in black metal from Bastar and intricate patterns shone through imaginative dokra figurines made with the ancient lost wax technique.
After driving through the dusty tracts of North Chhattisgarh’s interior districts, we didn’t expect to stumble upon this treasure, just 17km from the capital Raipur. True to its name, Purkhauti Muktangan is literally a free (mukt) open courtyard (angan) of ancestral heritage (purkhauti). In a departure from the traditional ‘museum’ as a repository of relics locked in glass cases or paintings and objects on pedestals, Purkhauti Muktangan is an engaging artistic village featuring the best of the state from Surguja in the north to Bastar in the south. By juxtaposing architecture, art and technology it is a dynamic, living, breathing space aimed at fostering an environment that recognizes, revitalises and sustains rural communities and traditions.
Conceived by the Culture Department under Ministry of Tourism, Government of Chhattisgarh and inaugurated by former President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in 2006, Purkhauti Muktangan is refreshingly devoid of stereotypes and structures. In festive season, artists to sell their wares in a haat (fair) like ambience. It aims to conserve endemic knowledge, socio-cultural lifestyle and customs of rural communities in an enriching experience.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the place is the story of the artists themselves. Window lattices or diwal bitti created by Sonabai Rajwar tell a heart-warming tale of a woman who chose to add colour and meaning to her life by creating dolls for her son when her jealous husband locked her away in a dark windowless home for 15 years. She dug clay from her courtyard and sculpted toys using sticks and hay as skeletal frames and ground spices, herbs and minerals to use as paint! Later, to cool her home and filter light from the courtyard she devised whimsical window screens with clay animal and bird motifs, creating an original form unknown in the region.
In 1968, her husband allowed her to step outside her home at Puhphutara village. Yet the self-taught artist was discovered only in 1983. Honoured with the President’s Award she continued to demonstrate her skills at domestic and international platforms with workshops for sculptors. She passed away in 2007, leaving a legacy called the Surguji style of architectural ornamentation.
Wood carvings had various connotations. Exquisitely carved wooden combs are love offerings made by Muria boys to girls of their choice. The beautiful black totem pole carved by Murra Ram Sodhi was a menhir or sacred memorial pillar for the dead, usually erected in front of Bastar’s tribal homes. Utilitarian doors embellished with designs by the Baiga tribes transform into art panels.
Ektal Craft Village, 20km from Raigarh, is a unique hamlet of 100 families that has specialised in dokra art for several generations! In open galleries such as this and Purkhauti Muktangan, you meet little-known artists who have won National and State awards, travelled abroad and yet, continue to live in thatched huts, their innocence untouched by vanity or fame.
By Road: From Raipur, drive 19km south east via Malviya Road towards Ring Road and get onto State Highway 2 to reach Purkhauti Muktangan near Radiant School at Uparwara, New Capital Area.
By Train: Located on the Mumbai-Howrah route of the Indian Railways, Raipur is well connected to major cities by daily trains.
The Culture Department, Govt of Chhattisgarh (Ph 0771-2537404, 2234731, 94252 08910) organizes a 2-hr guided tour in English or Hindi on prior notice. Lokprasang, a 3-day cultural festival is held roughly every quarter (Mar, Apr, Sep, Dec) with local folk dances and a handicraft mela. A weekly cultural program every Saturday is on the anvil from Jan 2014. Purkhauti Muktangan forms a good 1-day circuit with Champaran and Rajim (80km round trip from Raipur).
Besides the state tourism run Hotel Chhattisgarh on GE Road, Telibandha (Ph 9406350290, 9893906290), Raipur also has several 3-star hotels like Hotel Babylon on VIP Road (www.hotelbabylon.com), The Golden Oak (www.thegoldenoak.com) on MG Road and Grand International behind Station Road (www.hotelgrandinternational.com).
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller.