STAIR­WAY TO HIS­TORY

Chicago-based jour­nal­ist-photographer Vic­to­ria Laut­man’s ob­ses­sive af­fair with step­wells or bao­lis started in Ra­jasthan. Her pas­sion even­tu­ally found ex­pres­sion in her book, The Van­ish­ing Step­wells of In­dia.

Marwar - - Contents - Text Arund­hati Chat­ter­jee

Chicago-based jour­nal­ist-photographer Vic­to­ria Laut­man’s ob­ses­sive af­fair with step wells or bao­lis started in Ra­jasthan. Her pas­sion even­tu­ally found ex­pres­sion in her book, The Van­ish­ing Step wells of In­dia.

AL­MOST THREE DECADES AGO, CHICAGO-based jour­nal­ist-photographer Vic­to­ria Laut­man trav­elled to In­dia’s Golden Tri­an­gle—Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. It was her first trip to In­dia. She stopped a dozen times a day to drink road­side chai, and as she soaked in the in­trigu­ing his­tory of the states she was pass­ing through, she stum­bled upon an unan­tic­i­pated ob­ses­sion: bao­lis or step­wells. The fas­ci­na­tion grew over time and she has now au­thored a book on step­wells, ti­tled The Van­ish­ing Step­wells of In­dia, which has been pub­lished by Mer­rell Pub­lish­ers. “Ev­ery­one who loves In­dia will de­scribe the usual things— colours, peo­ple, aroma, ar­chi­tec­ture… all of these did over­whelm me in a tan­gi­ble way, but some­thing be­yond all of that stayed with me. I thought I’d got­ten In­dia out of my sys­tem, but it turned out I’d never be able to. I kept go­ing back. Ra­jasthan started it all,” says Laut­man.

Steeped in his­tory

In her book, Laut­man doc­u­ments over 120 step­wells across In­dia and their in­tri­cate his­to­ries. A ma­jor im­pe­tus for this came in 2014, when Gu­jarat’s op­u­lent baoli, Rani Ki Vav in Patan, made it to UNESCO’s list of World Her­itage Sites.

Laut­man vividly re­mem­bers feel­ing “clob­bered” by the scale and grandeur of the bao­lis she had seen. “The first step­well I saw was in Gu­jarat: Rud­abai Vav. I vis­ited sev­eral in Delhi too be­fore reach­ing the one at Neem­rana, which stunned me. In fact, I re­mem­ber the par­tic­u­lar spot where I was clob­bered, like love at first sight. I sud­denly thought, ‘Now I have to see ev­ery one of these’. Neem­rana still gives me goose­bumps,” she says.

Since her first trip, the jour­nal­ist-photographer has vis­ited Ra­jasthan sev­eral times, reg­is­ter­ing changes, big and small, on each visit. Among the no­tice­able changes, she says, were the num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing the sites and the amount of de­vel­op­ment that has taken place— some sites are com­plete and some are at a stand­still, caus­ing encroachment.

How­ever, she is deeply im­pressed by the ef­forts be­ing un­der­taken to pro­tect

the his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments. In Jodh­pur, the JDH Ur­ban Re­gen­er­a­tion Project, for ex­am­ple, has res­ur­rected the 18th cen­tury Toorji Ka Jhalra, next to the mag­nif­i­cent Raas Jodh­pur ho­tel. It has turned the splen­did step­well into a thriv­ing tourist des­ti­na­tion. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Ra­jesh Joshi has “adopted” the Mahila Baag Jhalra, clean­ing it of muck and restor­ing it with clean wa­ter.

Mean­while, the Rawla Nar­lai ho­tel of­fers guests a breath­tak­ing can­dlelit din­ner over­look­ing an an­cient step­well on their grounds. “These in­vest­ments will guar­an­tee each struc­ture’s preser­va­tion for years to come. Ra­jasthan has a huge num­ber of these gor­geous and im­por­tant sub­ter­ranean struc­tures. I strongly feel the in­com­pa­ra­ble Chand Baori in Ab­haneri should be next in­cluded on the list of UNESCO World Her­itage Sites, af­ter Rani Ki Vav,” says Laut­man.

The viewfinder

Ask her why she thought the bao­lis would make for bril­liant pho­to­graphs, and she cred­its the nov­elty fac­tor of some­thing un­heard of. “It is al­ways com­pelling to see any­thing re­mark­able that you’ve never heard of, like a par­tic­u­lar an­i­mal or a dis­cov­ery from outer space. We’re all vis­ually-ori­ented and cu­ri­ous, so these pho­to­graphs hit on both lev­els. Step­wells don’t look like any­thing that we’ve seen be­fore ar­chi­tec­turally, and con­sid­er­ing their age, and given that they are com­plex feats of en­gi­neer­ing and art, they are both beau­ti­ful and as­tound­ing. For all these rea­sons, the images can’t help but be en­thralling,” she ex­plains.

More than what meets the eye

It’s not only the baoli though that keeps bring­ing Laut­man back to the coun­try, es­pe­cially to the desert state. She has a pen­chant for his­tory and im­pos­ing ar­chi­tec­ture. The jour­nal­ist-photographer says she will never tire of Ra­jasthan’s tra­di­tional crafts and mu­si­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties. How­ever, there are cer­tain things she can­not ig­nore. She says, “While Ra­jasthan has taken im­por­tant steps to lower poverty and ex­pand in­dus­try, the sta­tus of women is ter­ri­ble. The lit­er­acy gap of women in com­par­i­son to men is the big­gest in In­dia, and the state has among the most num­ber of fe­male in­fan­ti­cides. It’s the largest state in In­dia, filled with such won­ders and so many bril­liant peo­ple. Surely they can im­prove these statis­tics.”

From top: Au­thor Vic­to­ria Laut­man; the Chand Baori in Ab­haneri Fac­ing page: In­side the Neem­rana baoli in Al­war

Clock­wise from top left: Toorji Ka Jhalra in Jodh­pur; Ujala baoli in Mad­hya Pradesh; the ex­te­rior of the Neem­rana baoli in Al­war

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