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Ethnic Culture from the Mithila Museum


Seeking to converse with nature, back in 1972 musician Tokio Hasegawa decided to live in the mountains behind Tokamachi City, Niigata Prefecture. Ever since then, Hasegawa has been spreading the ethnic culture of India from his home in the forests surrounding Lake Oike. We wanted to know more about Hasegawa and his activities, so we went there to spend some time with him.

Tokio Hasegawa keeps close watch over the creative work of painter Jangarh Shingh Shyam who came from India for a stint at the Mithila Museum in Oike, Tokamachi City, Niigata Prefecture. Shingh is a painter from the Pardhan tribe, which inherited the traditional ceremorial culture of the Gond tribe, India's largest group of native paople. The Mithila Museum is home to some 1,300 Mithila paintings, some of which can be seen in the background, and more than 300 of the works were prodused in Japan. When folk art produced by artists such as Shingh are added to the count, the size of museum's collection reaches mammoth proportions.

On a map of Japan showing the amounts of average annual snowfall there is a conspicuous black dot in a small, remote region of the country. The name of this place is Uonuma, in Niigata Prefecture. An area of mountains and forests interspersed with tiny villages, Uonuma is purported to have the heaviest snowfall not only in Japan but in the entire world. And in the center of snowy Uonuma is Oike Lake, which falls within the administrative boundaries of Tokamachi City.

At an altitude of 430 meters, this quiet lake is on a plateau sandwiched between two ridges, and brims with clear, mountain water. Winter brings as much as four meters of snow, and the frozen lake is transformed into a white plain. On the top of a small rise overlooking Oike Lake stands a museum housing the world's largest collection of Mithila paintings from Mithila region in the northeastern part of the Indian state of Bihar, which are created by women in a tradition extending back to ancient times. In religious ceremonies of this region that are performed in accordance with the movement of the sun and the moon, pictures of Hindu gods and the gods of nature that created the cosmos were painted on the walls of simple dwelling.
Many of these wall paintings were discovered in houses that had been destroyed in an earthquake which struck Bihar in 1934 and were subsequently introduced to the world by British government authorities. In the late 1960s, in a bid to assist the local populace suffering from a famine brought on by drought, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi distributed drawing paper to women of the region in a project aimed at reviving the wall painting tradition as a folk art. The artistic value of this new folk art was highly praised by the countries of Europe and North America, and a means to help the women of Mithila stand on their own feet was soon established. How did it come to be, then, that there is a Mithila Museum in the depths of Niigata Prefecture's snowy mountains?

In a workshop at Akadomari Elementar School,Hasegawa and musicians from China, South Korea, Mali, Senegal, and Guinea talk to students about the musical instruments of their countries.

Tokio Hasegawa, director of the museum, was born in 1948 in Asakusa, Tokyo. In 1969, at the age of 21, he formed the Taj Mahal Travelers, a group devoted to avant garde music. Seven musicians from the worlds of jazz, rock and roll, and avant garde gathered to combine their three genres of music into a blend of sound with a distinctive oriental flavor. The music consisted mainly of improvisational performances infused with natural music that gave the feeling of a cosmic, Japanese sound. The experiment was extremely innovative for that time, and the music they created was well received.
When Hasegawa was 23, the Taj Mahal Travelers embarked on a year-long tour of Europe. Since Hasegawa had no foreign language skills, he found himself with few opportunities to speak during the tour, and instead his senses opened to the environment around him. Looking back on his experience, he relates how he gained a strong awareness of being constantly surrounded by the wind, of living with the sun and the moon, and of how in due course he would become part of the earth.
On Hasegawa's return to Japan, Tokyo was struggling through a period of serious photochemical smog. The sky was constantly overcast with a gloomy, depressing haze, as if ready to cry bitter, acid tears at any minute. Living through this period, he came to believe that the most essential elements supporting human life were drinking water that was fresh and clean to the taste, deep breaths from the heart in the morning, and the beautiful moon above. Once this belief came to him, it gradually grew stronger, and this time he embarked on a journey around Japan in search of places where the moon was especially beautiful. At the end of the journey, Hasegawa found himself by the wooded shore of Tokamachi City's Lake Oike, which he called the Forest of the Cosmos. In this forest, Hasegawa went on to start a series of concerts, open a school with a free curriculum, and enjoy a life of freedom and self-sufficiency.
During this time in the 1970s when Hasegawa moved to live in this forest, Japan was undergoing rapid urbanization, and small villages in the remote countryside were being abandoned as a result of population shift towards the cities. The Oike area, an hour and a half away from the city center of Tokamachi over roads that were impassable in winter, was no exception. One by one, the families of the 23 houses forming the community of Oike packed up and left the forest, like teeth dropping out of a comb. Then in 1980, the event that most graphically illustrates the advanced stages of a ghost town finally happened: the Oike Elementary School was closed. The city of Tokamachi then drew up a plan to redevelop the area, which called for securing the lake with concrete and building athletics course and tennis courts in the surrounding forest.

Momadou Doumbia, a musician from the west African country Mali, in conversation with Hasegawa prior to a concert at a junior high school gymnasium in Akadomari Village, Niigata Prefecture. Recently, Hasegawa has been engaged not only in propagating Indian culture but also the ethnic culture of many other countries of the world.
When Hasegawa got wind of this plan, he went to see the mayor of Tokamachi. He told him, "Nature is something that can recover only with tremendous difficulty once is messed around with by human hands. Think about the future--- it is essential to leave the forest alone now if it is still to be here in a hundred or two hundred years' time. Don't you think it would be better to use the abandoned elementary school as a facility where people could come from the cities and learn about the culture of he forest?" After this, Hasegawa continued to communicate with the mayor about his ideas. He prepared and submitted an environmental survey of Oike, founded a support committee to preserve the area, and persisted in his negotiations with the local authorities. A year after the original plans were unveiled, the forest around Oike was allowed to remain untouched and the school grounds were entrusted to Hasegawa's management.
By coincidence, at this time a young Japanese had just returned from India and showed Hasegawa some Mithila paintings he had brought back. This was the first time Hasegawa had ever seen a Mithila painting, and he was struck by the profound simplicity and the tranquil sense of space that enveloped it. Hasegawa decided to embark on a new journey, led this time by the beauty of these mystical paintings.

Hasegawa immediately headed to India and started collecting Mithila paintings. The Bihar district has a long cultural history, and was also the setting for India's ancient epic poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Over the many trips that Hasegawa took to this area, his attraction to the paintings deepened and he became increasingly involved in the rich spirituality of the area.
The Mithila Museum was opened in May 1982, with the cultural attache of the Embassy of India in Tokyo attending to celebrate the occasion. About six months after the opening, a master of Mithila painting, Ganga Devi, arrived for extended stay, and during his time in Oike he produced a number of valuable works. Since then, not only Mithila painters but other artists including those producing plan terra cotta ceramics and the ceremonial painting of the Gond tribe were also invited to Oike on half-year stays to pursue their art. Over the years that followed, the Mithila Museum continued to grow, but due to its remote location it never attracted more than 2000 visitors a year, and the museum could not afford to operate on admission fees alone.

Hasegawa talks with Latyr Sy, a percussion musician from Senegal, and Chinese elementary school student. Hasegawa uses the minibus in the background to drive musicians to wherever they need to go. He not only drive himself but asks the owners of lodgings to take musicians in at minimal charge so that he can keep costs as low as possible. Since Hasegawa is able to produce his events at rock-bottom prices, even the smallest villages and towns can exchanges to their residents.
A change of fortune came in 1983 when the Indian Government's Bureau of Tourism held an exhibition in Hong Kong featuring Hasegawa's collection. While in Hong Kong, Hasegawa took the opportunity for a trip to visit Guangxi Province in southern China, where he came into contact with a culture of cosmology being faithfully continued by a local minority ethnic group. Hasegawa was so impressed by philosophy of the people, their music, and the motifs on their garments, that he spent the next four years in an effort to win approval to borrow a number of their treasured items.
He finally succeeded in organizing an exhibition in Tokamachi in 1987, and from there he took the exhibition to other locations around Japan, earning high acclaim along the way, and ended the tour in Tokyo. Hasegawa, having managed to transmit a culture of cosmology from a remote region to the people of Japan, was deeply satisfied.

In 1988, Hasegawa became the deputy executive manager of the India Festival sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and traveled with this festival from Abashiri in northern Hokkaido to Yonaguni Island in southern Okinawa, introducing Indian culture at numerous points in between. Since then, the Mithila paintings, Indian dance, Indian folk music and other facts of Indian culture from the small forest of Oike have continued to be used in international exchanges with many other small towns and villages. In recognition of his considerable contributions, the Japan Foundation awarded Hasegawa the 14th Prize for the Promotion of Community-based Cultural Exchange in 1998
"The greatest item on display at the Mithila Museum is the beautiful, silvery moon that appears overhead in the darkness of night," says Hasegawa. "When I gaze quietly at the moon, I feel myself become transparent, and I become aware of my own existence, not just in my immediate surroundings but within the vastness of space. I want to preserve the nature of the Oike area forever so that others after me well always be able to experience this empathy with space. In recent years I've been busy in the production business and have not been doing much as a musician, but personally I believe that protecting the nature here is of itself a creative activity." Where will Hasegawa's next destination be as he follows the moon which floats beyond the forest? Perhaps only the forest of Oike knows.

(Hisashi Kondo)
Photographgs by Hiroyuki Nagaoka

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