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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Photographer Amit Pasricha is capturing India’s long-neglected heritage

Of the 700,000 heritage structures that dot India’s landscape, only 2,500 are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) 

New Delhi photographer Amit Pasricha is no stranger to India’s architectural and archaeological wealth. He wrote three coffee table books (Monumental India, India at Home, and Sacred India) before the digital bug disrupted the publishing industry.

“Overnight, a world had collapsed before my eyes. For instance, the Frankfurt Book Fair used to have an English Language Hall where photographers could network with editors about coffee table books. It has now disappeared,” says the 51-year-old Pasricha, whose Facebook project, India Lost & Found, is replete with stunning imagery of India’s architectural gems.

“However, what social media has done is create a purely visual language. Photography is the primary language of modern times. It lends itself to the sort of dialogue I wish to start about conservation and heritage in our country.” So, what inspired him to start the project? “I was deeply disturbed by how many structures were being used as dumping grounds due to sheer bureaucratic and public apathy,” Pasricha says. “A starting point to make any difference is to first locate the problem with our heritage management. Heritage management here is trapped in a vicious circle – the locals don’t care for the abandoned heritage structure because no one visits their villages or small towns. But if a person is indeed awestruck by one of my photographs and makes that 500-kilometre journey to experience its magic in reality, then you’re creating value via tourism,” he says.

India’s historical wealth is in dire straits. Of the 700,000 heritage structures that dot India’s landscape, only 2,500 are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). That said, Pasricha’s take on heritage veers sharply off course from the rarefied world of heritage conservation. “I have a problem with the word ‘conservation’ and the term itself merits a review. I say this because when corporates or wealthy patrons come forward to ‘preserve’ heritage, they want a structure to look spanking new.

“I find this approach self-defeating. What’s the point of rebuilding something to look freshly painted only to see it crumble again? Things are going to age. You can’t fight that. Instead, I would like to engage these structures as living phenomena, that are part of the fabric of everyday life in India.” Pasricha says that conservationists need to give the term “stasis” more respect.

“An age-old relic can well be preserved in its current state,” Pasricha says. “The idea is to not see it go to seed or fall prey to vandalism. From a modern perspective, I am attempting to rebrand heritage conservation in India.”

In his attempt to navigate the byways of heritage conservation, Pasricha is seeking allies beyond the domain of architecture and archaeology to be part of his “knowledge collective”, the volunteers who glean information on the old monuments he so assiduously documents.

“Heritage is also about food stylists, costume designers, movie researchers and theatre folk. For instance, if you went to Fatehpur Sikri [the city founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire by Emperor Akbar in 1571], you will not only come back with the mental image of red sandstone buildings. With the right information thrown your way, you will emerge with an even more detailed vision of how the Mughals lounged about, the three biryanis that were cooked in this city, and the colours of the jewels that its women adorned themselves with,” he says. Pasricha believes that by abdicating their role in heritage conservation and documentation, and delegating it to architects and archaeologists, Indian citizens are doing a great disservice to their history.

Pasricha could well be the champion India needs to protect its crumbling history. He is a third generation photographer. His grandfather and father ran the Delhi Photo Company in the city’s Janpath district – an operation that moved between Delhi in the winters and the hill station of Mussoorie in the summers. His grandfather started as a charcoal artist, but became a portrait photographer of Indian royalty. But despite this legacy, financial constraints loom over his plans.

“To fully document our nation’s hidden gems, I need the right funding. Unfortunately, at present, corporate generosity is focused on health and education in our country. Heritage documentation is seen as too esoteric,” he says. On a lighter note, Pasricha is currently in talks with Google India’s arts and culture lab to disseminate his treasure trove of images to the public this year. Fans of his Facebook project ought to be delighted.

Shah Hamdan Mosque, Srinagar, Kashmir

Shah Hamdan Mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir, was rebuilt in 1731. Its outer walls are made of wood  
Shah Hamdan Mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir, was rebuilt in 1731. Its outer walls are made of wood  

Facing the Pathar Masjid from the opposite bank of the Jhelum, this mosque, rebuilt in 1731, has its outer walls entirely constructed from wood in accordance with local practice. Portals crowned by timber balconies project outwards in the middle of each side of the two-storeyed square structure. The metal-clad roof rises in sloping tiers, the midpoint being marked by a characteristic steeply angled spire. The mosque interior, however, is of brick, with cells set into the side walls and an ornate stone mihrab niche in the qibla wall. Four slender octagonal wooden columns carry a decorated wooden ceiling. This rises over the central bay of the prayer hall, overlooked from an upper screened gallery.

Ajmer Jama Masjid and Baradaris, Ajmer, Rajasthan

The Ajmer Jama Masjid built by Shah Jahan as a thanksgiving for a successful military campaign
The Ajmer Jama Masjid built by Shah Jahan as a thanksgiving for a successful military campaign

In fulfilment of a vow made as a thanksgiving for a ­successful military campaign, Shah Jahan ordered the ­construction of this structure behind Muin al-din Chishti’s tomb in 1636. The white marble prayer hall presents a 45-metre-long line of 11 arch-shaped openings, carried on slender pillars. Among Shah Jahan’s other ­contributions to Ajmer is a ­series of baradaris built beside Ana Sagar, the great artificial lake on the city’s outskirts. These pavilions occupy the site of a garden residence laid out by Jahangir, of which no trace remains. Shah Jahan’s white marble baradaris have ­pillared verandas sheltered by chhajjas. The verandas lead to flat-ceilinged rectangular chambers overlooking the lake.

Khusrau’s Tomb, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh

The elaborate Khusrau’s Tomb in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh
The elaborate Khusrau’s Tomb in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh

This is actually the tomb of Khusrau’s sister, Sultana Nisar Begum, who died in 1625. Raised on a high podium, this elaborately finished building has portals in the middle of each side, flanked by double tiers of arched recesses. Slender corner octagonal chhatris frame the dome on an octagonal drum. The walls of the interior chamber are lavishly painted with trees and plants. The dome above has a petalled medallion surrounded by rings of arch-net motifs, executed in painted plaster.

Broken Chola Temple, Tharangambadi, Tamil Nadu

The remains of a fallen tower that was part of the 12th-century Masilamani Nathar Temple crumble into the sea at Tharangambadi – the ‘place of the Singing Waves’ on the Bay of Bengal
The remains of a fallen tower that was part of the 12th-century Masilamani Nathar Temple crumble into the sea at Tharangambadi – the ‘place of the Singing Waves’ on the Bay of Bengal

The remains of a fallen vimana (tower) of the 12th century Masilamani Nathar Temple crumble into the sea at Tharangambadi, “Place of the Singing Waves”. The waters of the Bay of Bengal have been steadily moving inland, eroding many medieval temples along the shore. This temple lies in the delta of the sacred river Kaveri. The pilgrim towns in this belt demonstrate the religious tolerance of the Coromandel Coast: the famous church of Vailankanni draws people of all faiths seeking miracles from the Virgin; at the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Mian, Hindus offer their hair in penance; and in a rare temple to Shani, people across all religions seek deliverance from the shadows cast by Saturn.

Shah Pir’s tomb, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh

Shah Pir’s tomb in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, is the mausoleum of a local saintly figure of the same name. The structure is superbly finished, with well-articulated arched recesses Photos Amit Pasricha  
Shah Pir’s tomb in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, is the mausoleum of a local saintly figure of the same name. The structure is superbly finished, with well-articulated arched recesses Photos Amit Pasricha  

In between the Yamuna and Ganga rivers, about 55 kilometres north-east of Delhi, lies Meerut, a city with its own mint that rose to prominence under Emperor Akbar.The principal Mughal monument there is the mausoleum of a local saintly figure, known simply as Shah Pir, supposedly a spiritual teacher of Jahangir. Though the patronage of the tomb is credited to Nur Jahan, the building was never completed, leaving the saint’s grave open to the sky. The domeless, red sandstone structure is superbly finished, with well-articulated arched recesses on its exterior and interior walls. The recesses are filled with geometric patterns in intricately worked shallow relief, realised as perforated windows at both levels in the middle of each side. The tomb is raised on a terrace and was intended to be surrounded by a colonnade, but only a corner was built.

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In the frame: Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014

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