Betty Karuna Karan has an eye for beautiful things. Her Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum in Alappuzha is a labour of love
Betty Karuna Karan is a collector of beautiful things. Beautiful things that fill up your senses. In 2006 she built the Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum in Alappuzha, in the memory of her husband, to house her and her family's invaluable collection of these beautiful things. Open to the public the museum is a must-see destination. in Alappuzha. Seeing the visitors troop in gives Betty immense satisfaction. “It is a labour of love,” she says gently.
The museum houses her personal collection of Swarovski crystals, perhaps the single largest private collection in the world, outside Wattens, the home of Swarovski. Besides crystal ware, the museum has a fabulous inventory of artefacts in porcelain, ivory, china, furniture, carpets, glassware, paintings… a stunning panoply of three generations of a family.
Amidst the dazzling artefacts is a small opaque round vase with a burnished lustre that is of special significance. It is the first object that Betty collected as a 13-year-old.
At 70, she recalls the moment fondly. “I don’t exactly remember the cost, Rs. 5 or 7. That was a big amount then and I felt the pinch. It is a German piece and I bought it in Chennai.” The vase is endearing for its perfect form and warm colour.
Betty’s keen eye has a penchant for interesting objects. Her accessibility to wondrous and distinctive objects grew after her marriage with Revi, who headed one of Kerala’s first coir export businesses. His work took him and Betty across the world many times. Each trip for her meant collecting a souvenir and also acquiring things that charmed her.
“Actually it is easier for me to tell you the names of places that I have not visited,” says Betty humorously. “Revi and I always went on the travels as friends but while returning we were enemies. But then there were many times that he bought a piece which he thought I would like,” says Betty remembering the sojourns. Those are the most precious pieces for her.
She has consciously bought things from the different parts of the world. Each piece is precious, more because of the memory it holds, like the ones that her husband bought for her or a flower vase from her mother- in- law’s dressing table or the family Venetian coffee service set.
It is the beauty of a piece and not the price that prompts her to buy it. “If I like it and it is within my budget, I pick it up,” she says.
Her biggest contribution to the family collection has been its preservation. Besides adding to the cache she has kept it safe for over half a century.
A family of collectors
Betty married into a family of collectors. Her husband’s great grandfather, Krishnan Muthalaly from Paravoor, near Kollam, was the original collector. He is credited to be the first Indian to set up a coir export unit, 100 years ago. The kerosene-run projector, a majority of the ivory pieces, antique furniture and some Tanjore paintings belong to him, says Betty.
It was after the demise of her husband, in 2003, that Betty began thinking of collating the artefacts from their family house and their several homes in Kerala and displaying them in a museum. “The idea came up out of sadness and loneliness. What am I going to do with the collection?” she says with a tinge of sadness.
Her home by then was brimming with beautiful priceless pieces of porcelain, china, silverware, furniture, uniquely crafted items and many more. She was clueless about giving shape to her idea and at the same time did not want to rope in a curator. “These items are very close to my heart. I wanted to present them my way”.
So with the help of Lalichan Zachariah, an architect from Ernakulam, whom she knows well, she designed the museum, sitting up many nights, measuring, drawing and ideating on the display, sifting, grouping and making an inventory. It took her a year to do so. But Betty says she was driven. Finally, when the structure came up with elevator and ramp to enable all in the public to come, when each artefact, dusted and polished, found its way onto red velvet-lined glass shelves, each in its designated place, when the lights came on and beauty of the pieces filled the space, Betty realised her dream.
The collector’s psyche
There are many things unique to a collector. What prompts them to pick a piece? Why do they continue to gather? Is it clutter? Do they have a favourite? Betty answers patiently.
“There’s a piece, captioned and displayed, at the museum, which is from a man selling his wares in front of a church in Peru. He was covered in a sheet and had a few striking pieces around him. I asked him if there were more and he removed his shroud. He was limbless and had moulded and painted the pieces with a brush held from his mouth!
“It was not so expensive but it is fantastic, the labour of the artisan, the passion and in this case the never-say-die human spirit itself,” she says stressing on the qualities that draw her to a piece.
Betty attributes this fabulous collection to four facts- that her husband was the only son and inherited a vast collection, that her two mothers- in- law, both European, brought a sizeable contribution with them and kept adding to the collection and she herself, is a keen collector.
Betty’s first mother-in-law Margaret (Revi’s mother), a German, came from a wealthy family and brought with her a priceless collection that was more than 100 years old.
Kareena Hackfoort, her second mother- in-law was a highly educated woman , graduated from the Sorbonne. She was Dutch and would gift Betty beautiful piecesparticularly Swarovski and Lladro.
Another interesting fact is that Betty has never lost a piece and there has been “negligible breakage”, which she attributes to her excellent caring staff. Of course, she cannot choose a favourite.
The first thing that Betty does in any place she travels to is visit a museum. Most of the pieces in her museum come with a certificate of authentication. One of the antique priceless pieces at the museum she reveals is a 17th century mosaic ring belonging to the Venetian royalty. It found its way through her mother-in-law. Few pieces of obsidian - ancient volcanic rock resembling glass- formed from lava obtained from Mexico and Indonesia are rare attractions.
Betty has never felt the collection to be “too much of a hassle”. In fact, these pieces string the years of three generations a family who gave Kerala its first coir export house, a family which looked ahead of its time, where unity and love kept the heirlooms intact and in good shape. That nothing was lost or stolen, nothing was destroyed or neglected. Betty holds the cache in her safe hands, offering it to the public to enjoy and experience the joy that emanates from a thing of beauty.
Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum is open on all days except Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.