Vijayanath Shenoy is a collector. That conjures up visions of a snob – rich, urbane, possibly even pretentious. But Shenoy is down-to-earth, simple and genuine. Though a natural aesthete, he never set out to be a collector. He just became one, unconsciously but inexorably. He reveals rather cryptically: “Being a collector is a source of negative pleasure for me. I was only relieving my pain caused by the wanton destruction of our heritage.”
Shenoy collects old homes – beautiful, intricately carved, ancestral homes that belonged to the wealthy landed gentry of South Karnataka. Land reforms, modernization and urbanization that broke down joint family systems and pastoral livelihoods, began to erode a way of life that had existed for centuries. Unwanted by their city-dwelling heirs, ancestral homes – empty or inhabited by aging grand parents – began collapsing in the countryside. Piled high on carts, exquisitely carved wooden ceilings, pillars and doors made their final journey to the slaughter house of saw mills to be sliced and sold as firewood. Lovingly sculpted bell metal objects were melted down in foundries.
Shenoy watched and grieved. He could not bear to see the annihilation of his homeland’s traditional architecture. These homes were not mere mud and wood edifices. He explains: “Architecture is the most visible symbol of our cultural heritage. Music and dance are powerful, but not tangible the way buildings are. These homes represented the conceptualization of our ethos, the imagination of our ancestors, the ingenious indigenous technology, the skill of native craftsmen. They provide cultural continuity. They connect us with our heritage. But the connection was breaking, our heritage was disappearing. And with it our sense of identity would be lost too. Soon, there will be nothing left to link us to our roots. I had to step in to save these homes.”
That was in the 1974 and as an employee of Syndicate Bank in Manipal, 40-year old Shenoy did not have much money to undertake his mission. So he began by rescuing a door here, a pillar there, from the brutal encounter with the buzz saw. He bought what he could afford. What he couldn’t, he pleaded with the owners to donate to him instead of selling to scrap dealers. He retrieved traditional artifacts from junk yards, unused attics and debris of demolished homes. Bit by bit, he collected. And built a home for himself, using all these salvaged materials.
It took him five years to complete the house he named “Hasta Shilpa” – Creation by Hand. It was not merely a museum of traditional craft. It was a condensed recreation of a composite architectural tradition in all its glory. It conformed to the principles of Vaastu Shastra that combines physics with metaphysics, utility with harmony. Above all, it was a monumental vision of loveliness – a memory coming alive from the past to touch the soul of visitors. The fabled beauty of this recreated home spread far and wide. Intellectuals, commoners, students all flocked to Manipal to marvel the house that Shenoy built. It touched a powerful chord in the public.
But it struck a discordant note at home. It became impossible for the Shenoy family to live in a house where visitors streamed in constantly. His two children could not study. His wife had no privacy. The choice was stark: either they ban visitors or they move out. Shenoy did not agonize over the decision. In 1991, he converted Hasta Shilpa into a Public Charitable Trust and moved out to a new and ordinary home. Hasta Shilpa contained priceless objects, but there was no question of selling the house because he fervently believed he was not the “owner”. He was merely its Custodian. Heritage is not a matter of individual ownership; it is an issue of collective entitlement. How could he change track and become selfish when it was this belief that had spurred him on his mission?
He vividly recalls the pain of seeing a beautiful ancestral home in Malnad being torn down by its owner in 1983. He begged, pleaded and cajoled, but the adamant owner only got angrier. In desperation, Shenoy yelled at him: “You have no right to demolish this house. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to all of us.” The owner got so furious at Shenoy’s effrontery that he had him physically thrown out of his estate. From a distance, Shenoy watched the grand old manor come down. He wept for the second time in his life. The first was when his mother died. Two decades have gone by, but the memory remains an unhealed wound. Shenoy’s voice breaks and his blazing eyes fill with unshed tears as he remembers the humbling of a glorious tradition.
From that helplessness was born a steely determination to save not only homes, but the precious architectural heritage of his region. It was not enough to save a few utensils, window frames and carved doors. He had to save whole homes that contained within its shaded interiors, the whispering narratives of his ancestors. From an ordinary bank employee, he became an extra ordinary heritage conservationist. And a new vision possessed him – to set up a Heritage village in Manipal where he could transplant and preserve whole homes. It was a difficult and delicate task – dismantling crumbling homes, transporting every little item, reassembling and preserving them.
With Rs.40 lakh donation from NORAD, the Norwegian Aid Agency and six acres of land from the government, Shenoy dedicated himself to fulfilling his vision. He now has reassembled 26 beautiful traditional structures in his Heritage Village. The buildings represent different architectural styles, both secular and sacred. It comprises hermitage, temples and homes belonging to Brahmins, Mangalore Christians and Nizams, to affluent feudal landlords and even an ascetic Hindu pontiff.
What is perhaps most striking about these gracious old homes is the way they arise naturally from the womb of the earth. What imbues them with this aura of belonging to the local context, of oneness with the surrounding nature is perhaps the fact that the building materials are natural and drawn from the nearby forests, plains, sea coast and rivers: the houses are built with timber, granite, laterite, terracotta tiles, mud, lime, stone, straw and sand. All bio-degradable. They came from earth and unto earth they shall return.
Unlike the modern RCC (the reinforced concrete cement) monstrosities that have disfigured the countryside. Shenoy hates them with a passion. He exclaims: “These RCC structures are like cancer. The earth won’t take them back. They are more dangerous than nuclear bombs. When I see an RCC construction, I feel like reaching out for a hand grenade.” Shenoy acknowledges that modern skyscrapers need to be built of glass and chrome, steel and cement. But he doesn’t understand why people use RCC to build matchboxes they call homes, which trap heat, to cope with which they need air conditioners that punish them with huge electricity bills.
Modernity is useful and inevitable, but Shenoy feels it should not come at the price of sacrificing tradition. A deeply cultured man, Shenoy loves traditional art, dance, music, theatre, literature and sculpture. In 1961 he set up Sangeet Sabha in Manipal to promote Classical music and dance. His initiatives resulted in all the legends of Indian traditional art forms visiting Manipal to give live performances and talks. Shenoy’s passions, loves and compulsions are coded in his DNA. They stir his soul; flow in his veins. An enduring philosophical conundrum is whether man makes history or whether history finds the right person at the right time to create history. Shenoy believes history finds the man. “Nature chooses her champions” he says, adding “All around me, heritage was being destroyed. Heritage needed to be saved and it found me.”
The Heritage Village is not open to tourists. It is only for the discerning visitor – students of architecture, scholars, researchers, designers and conservationists. Says Shenoy: “It is a kind of University, not a Disneyland to which busloads of beer drinking tourists come to gape and entertain themselves.” With its array of elaborately hand crafted homes, its stunning galleries of historic Ravi Varma lithographs and magnificent Tanjore paintings, its museum of tribal sculpture, folk and contemporary art, it’s training centre for artisans to keep alive traditional skills in handloom weaving, pottery, metal casting, wood carving, mud processing and stone cutting, the Heritage Village is a tribute to the vision and will of one remarkable man. Posterity has to be eternally grateful to Shenoy for single-handedly conserving South Karnataka’s rich architectural legacy. His success demonstrates how passionate dedication driven by noble, unselfish motives can achieve spectacular results.
But Shenoy doesn’t see it that way. He says: “Only pain will drive you to succeed. If you experience intense pain, then every action of yours becomes part of your struggle to relieve pain. In that process, you succeed. But it is not worldly success that motivates you. It is the desire to vanquish pain.”
Pain drove Shenoy to save his heritage. And Deccan architectural heritage found its Champion.