History Life & Style

‘I couldn’t get India out of my system’

Victoria Lautman  

If you want an account of India’s ancient stepwells and look around for books, you’ll find a handful of them. The recent one, however, comes from Chicago-based journalist Victoria Lautman. The Vanishing Stepwells of India (Merrell Publishers) was the result of her visiting more than 200 stepwells across eight states. It’s a surprise when Victoria, who is in Hyderabad to deliver a talk on stepwells, tells us that she didn’t set out to write a book in the first place. “I thought I’d write an article,” she shares.

Victoria first visited India in 1985 and happened to see a stepwell in Gujarat. A radio journalist, she had saved some money to visit India. “I had always wanted to come,” she says, talking about her first visit when she came with a group of architects. The trip piqued her interest in India and “I kept coming back. I couldn’t get India out of my system,” she says.

Ask her what drew her to the country and she says, “Anyone who has an affinity to a city will talk about its food or people. There’s so much in India that you can never get the end of it. I’ve travelled extensively in the United States. You can drive through 50 states and find nothing drastically different. Here, I discovered a different environment from Gujarat to Rajasthan and that was magical.”

An obsession

Neemrana Baoli in Rajasthan by Victoria Lautman

Neemrana Baoli in Rajasthan by Victoria Lautman  

Five years ago during a three-month visit to India, Victoria came with a preliminary research on three stories. Stepwells was one among them. She visited the Neemrana Baoli in Rajasthan and was awe struck. Soon, she confesses it became an obsession to visit as many stepwells as possible. “I read what other scholars had written about stepwells. Some books had gone out of print. I read whatever I could find and spoke to people to learn more,” she says.

She realised that not many architects, archaeologists or historians knew enough about stepwells. “I was upset that so many hadn’t heard of stepwells. That was reason enough for me to want to write on this topic,” she says.

Visiting and documenting stepwells wasn’t easy. She mostly travelled alone, occasionally asking a guide or a cab driver to help her communicate with the locals. “My Hindi is awful,” she says.

She visited the prominent stepwells like Rani ki Vav, Rudabai and Dada Harir stepwells in Gujarat, Agrasen ki baoli in Delhi which was featured in Aamir Khan’s PK as well as many abandoned, crumbling step wells filled with silt and garbage. “For every one stepwell that’s well maintained, I can list 10 others that aren’t,” she says.

Victoria feels stepwells and temple tanks can be of relevance today if cleaned up and the water table is allowed to be replenished. She appreciates the efforts taken in a few states to restore some of the stepwells.

Her talk in Hyderabad will present an overview of stepwells, their history and architecture. “I’ve given lectures on these stepwells internationally. Everywhere, people are stunned when they see the photographs,” she says. The photographs in her book were shot using a simple point-and-shoot camera. “I am not a professional photographer and if while negotiating steep stepwells, I didn’t want to risk a DSLR,” she laughs.

People and perspectives

Victoria recalls meeting varied personalities who had absorbing stories to share. Kumar Vyas of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and Himanshu Verma of Red Earth India, are notable among them. “To anyone who wants to visit India, I’d recommend venturing beyond the tourist circuit. Instead of taking the highway from Delhi to Agra to visit Taj Mahal, take detours and explore smaller places. Spend some time in Vrindavan and Mathura,” she says.

After stepwells, ask her what areas she’d like to explore and she says, “I’d love to write about India’s architecture, or even do an interview with Shah Rukh Khan.”

(Victoria Lautman’s talk ‘Beautiful stepwells of India’ will be held at Lamakaan, Banjara Hills, on February 18; 5 p.m.)

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 1:12:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/%E2%80%98I-couldn%E2%80%99t-get-India-out-of-my-system%E2%80%99/article17312671.ece

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