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India’s Only One: Bay Island Driftwood Museum, Kumarakom

For many communities by the sea it was firewood. Others – like the Norse – took the relevance up a notch and endowed it with the beginning of life itself: their first man and woman – Ask and Embla – floated in as driftwood. But for the lady who used to drag the weird-shaped stumps off the beaches of Andaman and Nicobar islands (the Bay Islands) to her workshop several kilometres away it was somewhere in between. What started as a passion soon became an obsession. Today many of these have been collected and chiselled to resemble creations of nature and even scenes from history and displayed at the Bay Island Driftwood Museum in Kumarakom, Kerala.

“I never saw an art gallery,” says curator and proprietor Raji Punnoose of her walks on the beaches of Bay Islands when she first came across this ‘art of the sea.’ Whenever there was a cyclone – the archipelago was pretty prone to them – lumps of uprooted trees, twisted or just worn out to form bizarre shapes used to float on the shores. What was first imagined by the ‘greatest sculptor’ the sea was later varnished after bare minimum shaping with hacksaws and blade knives. Not an easy task considering millennia of seasoning in the saltwater where these are fossilised to somewhere between coal and wood; so hard even nails can’t be driven into them. To make her point, Raji thumped one piece with a rod which emitted a shallow drumming sound. “Only rosewood or teak reach this stage of fossilisation,” she says. After a quarter century of dragging and moulding she met an artist whom she says ‘opened her eyes to the infinite artistic possibilities’ of the fruits of her labour which had by then grown to a sizeable collection.

“I built all these with my own savings and PF,” says Raji who retired as a schoolteacher in the Andaman about the modest, Laurie Baker-styled building which houses the museum. Ask any local for ‘the museum’ at Chakrampadi along the main Kumarakom road 10 kilometres from Kottayam town. The museum is today managed by a trust to ensure its perpetuity. Recognising it’s potential as a special interest tourist destination, the state government awarded it the ‘Most Innovative Tourism Project’ prize in 2004. Even though tourists many not exactly be making a beeline for the museum, the recent status of Kumarakom as an incubator for the state’s responsible tourism initiatives is good news. Visitors to this backwater destination are an ecologically aware lot and hence the driftwood collection comes as an extension of their sensibilities. Statistically, Raji says, a third of those coming to Kumarakom come just for the museum. Most of the star properties as well homestay owners in the area recommend the collection to their guests as a must-see. This, as it turns out from the feedback notes, has delighted many. Though some do point out on the need of more prodding and imagination to see the motley collection the way Raji sees them.

The shark, the crocodile, the monkey, rose and hornbill all seem like the sea has invested special care in carving out flora and fauna. Understandably it’s a natural here. The mother hen with her little ones looks straight out of a hinterland backyard. The crocodile baring its ferocious snappers is a freeze-frame from Jaws. Then there is the hyena caught just before the pounce; an extravagant piece made more sinister by lights bouncing off the dark varnish on its taut stomach. The tribal community of the Jarawas too reflects a special fondness the ‘greatest sculptor’ has for the seafaring population – the fisher folk are semi naked, playful and hardworking. But as the scenes become slices of real life you have to peer closer and try harder. While you can pass the ‘handicapped woman with family’ with a nod, freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose exhorting followers in his ‘Chalo Dilli’ campaign comes by as a pleasant frown. As does the Jesus Christ towards the end of the collection which looked to me more like a popular Indian actor during his lankier younger days. Then art is subjective at best.

Raji takes you around personally, explaining the artefacts – the way she saw them. While you wholeheartedly agree with most you are tempted to point out what you think could be better fit for some. Though she remains softly steadfast to her point of view, she nevertheless indulges you patiently like the mother urging the fledgling to take wings in one of her collection. Then if the financial assistance promised by the cultural affairs ministry comes her way, this banter will soon be a thing of the past. “With larger number of tourists coming during the peak season, I will not be able to take them around personally,” she says. Raji has proposed an audio-guide to the different art pieces which will explain the semblances, the effort that went into as well as the beach where it was discovered; her discoveries are based mostly around the beaches of Wandoor, Mayabender, Machi Dera, Panchavadi and 18-Kilometre. These guides can even potential tourism drivers to these beaches which are growing destinations on the Bay Islands today.

Since it opened its doors in 2001, tourists from close to 100 countries have visited the museum till date. The entry fee of Rs 50 is ploughed back into local area development as well as charity. Over the years, several millions of rupees have been collected which Raji donates to an old age home nearby as well as for midday meals for the homeless. Though domestic travellers are not very enthusiastic about museums, there have been some keen arty types from abroad who create niche publicity by word of mouth. The high worth travellers who stay at heritage properties are an ardent crowd who leave glowing praise. Recognition, of late, has come from within as well. In 2010 the Limca Book of Records certified that it was the only driftwood museum in the country. An internet search has revealed that there aren’t many in the world either. The government ruling that nobody can take into possession stuff brought in by the sea following the 2004 tsunami means that the Bay Island museum will remain one-of-a-kind.

It is with the sea I slept
But with the view thy kept
Cuddled caressed in thy wanton depth
With the sculptor that mended my worth
Drifting down the ride I gained
A wizard with a melody played
Soothing with the pensive hand
Galore I; a figurine born
Who am I?
Driftwood reborn

(Raji, an English teacher, has chosen lines from eminent literature to go with her artwork.)

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