Step-wells are extraordinary examples of vernacular subterranean architecture, special to the Indian subcontinent. They can be found in numerous locations, generally along ancient trade routes across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and eastern parts of Pakistan. As land-locked areas with few perennial rivers flowing through them, these areas have historically suffered from a distressing scarcity of water for many months in a year. Water was, therefore, a precious, life-saving commodity, and building a step-well that satisfied the thirst of man and animal was considered an act of redemption. The step-wells are locally known as Vav, Baoli, Bavi, Bawdi, Jhalara and so on.

Most step-wells are simple in their presentation. They run linear at the ground level, with a deep well at one end that taps into an underground water stream and steps going down almost five to seven storeys below the earth, with landings for travelers to rest, at the other end. Pillars hold up the horizontal stone scaffolding that rises above, on which, it is believed, thick fabric would be stretched in the summer to offer shade. However, in all step-wells, there is a palpable drop in temperature as one descends, especially at the height of summer when the water level would sink considerably.

These step-wells were usually built by local rulers, sometimes by affluent merchants, but almost always as a thankful response to a divine boon (or in hope of one). The scale of the step-well would depend on the financial capabilities of the patron and the nature of the boon received or asked for. Often, a stone edict fixed prominently in the step-well wall is a documentation of who built it, when and why. There are several kinds of wells: L-shaped step-wells, round helical ones, those with steps coming in from four directions, those with only three storeys, others going down as much as seven or nine. Some are simply functional, others have elaborately carved pillars, walls, niches, brackets, columns and lintels. The most exquisite of these is the Raan ki Vav at Patan in north Gujarat, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Neena Naishadh of Neekoee Foundation, Ahmedabad, spotted the modest now-dry Vav in Ambapur village near Gandhinagar a few years ago and began looking for an artist to work on a site-specific installation at the Vav. She found artist-architect Vishal K. Dar, and together Dar and Naishadh worked with the local community and the State ASI to get the required permissions, and with support from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, the project took shape.

Dar’s practice is generally located in abandoned or marginalized structures. He usually works with computer-controlled lights in such spaces, using the presence of a reflective surface such as water pools or mirrors to get the dramatic effect he needs. “Right from the very first visit, it was clear to me that the haunting emptiness of the site was to be highlighted, and the intervention would have to be a non-object of sorts, that brings focus to the site rather than itself,” explains Dar. He created an air-filled inflatable spheroid, designed as a droplet, stretching seven meters in diameter and four and a half meters in width. Made of high-density woven PVC, it was covered by a reflective chrome fabric as its outer layer. Dar thus combined two elements in one composite: the reflective surface mimicking luminosity by reflecting ambient light and focusing on the surrounding empty architecture..

The droplet was suspended on the top floor (the ground level) over the length of the dry Vav and there it remained, hanging by a thread, for the three days that the installation “Rta” (Season) was on view. As the days progressed and the light spring air would warm up towards the afternoon, the expansion caused the creases in the droplet to gently stretch, making the drop glisten blindingly in the sun.

Will the droplet make a splash and bring the Vav to life or will it evaporate and let the Vav sink into oblivion?

This is one of the several questions raised by Rta.

As a site-specific installation that should ideally (but not necessarily) be based on a socially relevant premise, Rta meets its goals. Both Dar and Naishadh worked extensively with the local community, especially school-children, to raise awareness about the step-well and the need to preserve it. Though the state ASI had initiated the cleaning of many step-wells in the area with the help of conservation architect Sumesh Modi, including the one at Ambapur, lack of a post-conservation maintenance schedule returned it to its original state of ruin. The project began, then, with an extensive cleaning effort led by Naishadh. Despite the fact that a brand new temple has been built on the footsteps of the Vav (you need to get to the Vav via the temple now) neither the temple priest nor the local devotees invested their time to the cleaning process, telling of our attitude to such monuments.

Why did the well dry up? There is a lush pond adjacent to it, which indicates a sufficient level of groundwater in the area. According to an elderly villager, the well was deliberately dried out because the water fostered a guinea worm infestation. Further, as hand-pumps and later piped water began to reach homes, the wells lost their significance and fell into disuse. Many smaller step-wells have disappeared as villages are swallowed by neighbouring cities and construction developers bulldoze them. But as awareness about ancient methods of water conservation and preservation of rain water increases, it is possible that these architectural gems may survive.

Perhaps art projects like Rta will be successful in contributing to this process.

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