A little distance from the centre of the hilltop college town of Manipal, Karnataka is the campus of the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village. Its six acres house a little more than a dozen reconstructed vernacular structures from rural Karnataka, the brainchild of former banker Vijaynath Shenoy. His labour of love stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of the college buildings in the background.
Mr Shenoy talks movingly of his “intense pain” at the prospect of the demolition of some of South Kanara’s oldest structures as the beginning of his crusade to rescue a part of this heritage from obscurity. Citing Gandhi and Laurie Baker among his inspirations, he is engaged; he says, in “the physical documentation of a vanishing culture,” architecture being “the most powerful visual symbol of our heritage.” He has stories (and stories) of his sometimes-dangerous attempts to persuade stubborn heirs of the value of their heritage. Visitors can see the houses with less threat to life and limb, meticulously recreated in the Hasta Shilpa campus, almost a microcosm of rural Karnataka. Though the site is currently closed to the public, Mr Shenoy is sometimes willing to meet genuinely interested guests (he is impatient with his often superficial visitors).
Mr Shenoy’s earliest restoration effort, the Kunjur Chowkimane, is built entirely from local materials and looks, with its tapering wooden pillars and courtyard lined with granite stone edging, like it “grew from the earth”. It would take an encyclopaedia to do justice to his barrage of facts — architecture, history, and the odd anthropological fact thrown in. The slight gaudiness of the Deccani Nawab Mahal and the Anglicized pretensions of the nouveau-riche Mangalore Christian house speak of an unusual commitment to historical authenticity. While his deep seriousness is apparent, he is not beyond the mischief of locking up a dismayed guest to show off the working of an indigenous burglary lock.
Insisting that the project is not so much ‘revivalist’ as it is about ensuring ‘cultural continuity’, the project has in the last few years grown far beyond anything one could have imagined. Already, buildings to house museums of folk art, Thanjavur paintings and Ravi Varma lithos — he has acquired an admirable collection — are in the works. Mr Shenoy dreams of a performing arts centre, a library for research scholars and a training school for traditional artisans.
One considers a variant of the old question: where do old houses go to die? If they’re very lucky, they don’t. If they’re not, they get pulled down to make place for your friendly neighbourhood concrete-glass monstrosity. The rest, one suspects, are lovingly dismantled, numbered and shipped to Manipal where there is a Vijaynath Shenoy to stand guard over their traditions.
Mr Shenoy can be contacted at 0820-2572061.