Preserving the past: A teacher’s tribute to Jaisalmer
Text and images: Chintan Girish Modi
On a recent trip to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, I came across a gem of a place called the Desert Cultural Centre, run by Nand Kishore Sharma. I also had the opportunity to meet him, the author-teacher-historian who set up this amazingly well-resourced centre near Gadisar Lake in 1997, years after he founded the Jaisalmer Folklore Museum in 1984. At 77, Sharma is pursuing quite passionately the love of his life – documenting and celebrating the history of Jaisalmer. Although I landed at his doorstep unannounced, he was happy to spend time answering my queries.
What can one find at the Desert Cultural Centre? Old photographs, maps, manuscripts, paintings, musical instruments, puppets, local costumes, coins, camel ornaments — and much more. A catalogue of these materials is available for purchase. The entire collection has been put together largely through Sharma’s own efforts. He has written several books on Jaisalmer, many of which have been translated into other languages with the help of scholars and researchers who have visited him.
Apart from serving the interests of tourists and academics, Sharma feels that it is very important to generate curiosity and interest among the local population of Jaisalmer, especially youngsters who are not too aware of their heritage. He regularly organizes puppet shows and cultural festivals, writes columns for newspapers and radio plays, and offers translation assistance in order to share his expertise and to bring in revenue to cover administrative costs.
Along with the satisfaction and pride I hear in his voice when he talks about his work, I also encounter disappointment. He says, “There are many who can come and donate money but it is very difficult to find committed people to come and work here. A lot of interest and dedication is needed to do this kind of work. What if I get some person who sells off the original things and replaces them with duplicates?” He is afraid that much of what he has to share will not last beyond him. “I have trained my son. He will able to show the museum to visitors. But the inscriptions I can read, what I can explain, my understanding of history and culture – where will that come from?”
Sharma’s passion for his work is inspiring. It is perhaps best described in a piece titled ‘Behind the Scenes’, written by Ratna Rao Shekar in the Nov.–Dec. 2003 issue of House Calls. I came across this in a compilation I picked up at the centre – A Single Man’s Imagination: Folklore Museum and Desert Cultural Centre Jaisalmer – History and Introduction.
Shekar writes, “Meeting Sharma is a moving experience, for we learn that this simple schoolmaster has walked and bicycled around villages in the district of Jaisalmer, assimilating its history and collecting artifacts that he has paid for with his meagre schoolmaster’s salary. He has written 40 books in Hindi and English, as he believes his knowledge of English is inadequate to say all that he wants to about Jaisalmer.”
Shekar adds, “Meeting him and witnessing his zeal I am convinced that it is the small Indian who will teach us how to be big. It is not corporations and institutions hankering for their share of publicity when they fund the restoration of a monument that will keep the architectural heritage of this country alive. Anonymous Indians like Sharma will. And there are many like him working in the remote corners of this country, even if we’ve never heard of them.”
We at the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange celebrate the initiative and ingenuity of people like Sharma all over the world, and our Archives project hopes to bring many such stories to the fore.
Gadisar Circle, Jaisalmer - 345001