AI7_26_2017_3_04_38_AM_Vanishingstepwellmain.jpg
Victoria Lautman

Ever wondered what transpires in the ground underneath you? The ground underneath Victoria Lautman’s feet came undone when she chanced upon a stepwell 30 years ago. It led her into a world of stories, propaganda, myths; and a world of marvellous engineering, art and architecture... the stepwells.

While a Google search reveals a tonne about her research, adventures and also struggles in documenting the stepwells, we engaged with Victoria for a further chat about stepwells, India and the future that is to come.

CENOTAPHS, ORCHHA, MADHYA PRADESH

"MP is one of my favorite states in India, full of marvels, but yet it`s only the temple complex in khajuraho that sees a larger audience. I always urge driving to Gwalior, one of the most rewarding road-trips in India. Orchha is a few hours away from Gwalior. Besides the many other important sights, this row of royal cenotaphs along the river is literally breathtaking."

MATHURA, UTTAR PRADESH

"To me, any pilgrimage town in India is a must-see, full of pageantry, devotion, and authenticity that’s absent from overly-touristed destinations. Mathura, in between Delhi and Agra, is believed to be Krishna’s birthplace, and it’s teeming with people, temples, cows, beggars, and aggressive monkeys. Taking a lazy boat-ride along the picturesque Yamuna river is a scenic way to experience the bustle."

MEENAKSHI TEMPLE, MADURAI, TAMIL NADU

"Madurai is an ancient city in the southern region of India, with one of the largest temple complexes in Tamil Nadu that’s said to attract about 15,000 visitors daily. This gopuram (tower) is just one of fourteen, and not even the tallest, each crammed with thousands of painted plaster figures of deities, animals, demons, in a riot of color. The profusion is dizzying, you could spend all day trying to understand the intricate assemblage, but inside the temple there’s much more to be seen – no cameras allowed, though. Madurai is one of my favorite places in India and, while not simple to reach, is well worth the effort."

LUDIYA, KUTCH, GUJARAT

"The Kutch region of Gujarat is an important crafts center, though many of its ancient traditions are on the verge of extinction. It’s like traveling back in time, going from one tiny village to the next, observing a specific type of block-printing in one place, weaving in another, and decorative embroidery in yet another hamlet a few kilometers away. Families live in the traditional round, mud “bhungas” renowned for their plaster and mirror ornamentation, each home an individualised work of art."

CHAUSATH YOGINI TEMPLE, PADAWALI, MADHYA PRADESH

"It’s worth driving a few hours outside Gwalior for yet another of MP’s rarely-seen gems. This extraordinary 14th century circular temple is one of a very few that exist in India, known for the sixty-four shrines lining the interior wall. A larger Shiva temple is at center, and the imposing structure, reached by climbing a hill above the countryside, is thought to have inspired the Parliament building in New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens nearly six centuries later."

"The entire stepwell trajectory just fell in my lap. I doubt I’ll be that lucky again, to stumble on something so important and so beautiful, yet so little known. But five years ago, during my first extended, 3-month stay, I’d also researched a few other topics – both architectural in nature – known in India but not in the west. Maybe I’ll pick up those threads. We’ll see"

AI7_26_2017_3_04_38_AM_Vanishingstepwellmain.jpg
Showcase 26 Jul 2017

CQ Interviews: Victoria Lautman; From the chanced discovery of a Stepwell to a beautiful book.

“We do not choose our obsessions; they choose us, and I could never have predicted that stepwells would commandeer such a large slice of my life.” – Victoria Lautman, author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India.

Ever wondered what transpires in the ground underneath you? The ground underneath Victoria Lautman’s feet came undone when she chanced upon a stepwell 30 years ago. It led her into a world of stories, propaganda, myths; and a world of marvellous engineering, art and architecture... the stepwells. While a Google search reveals a tonne about her research, adventures and also struggles in documenting the stepwells, we engaged with Victoria for a further chat about stepwells, India and the future that is to come.

Victoria Lautman

Ever wondered what transpires in the ground underneath you? The ground underneath Victoria Lautman’s feet came undone when she chanced upon a stepwell 30 years ago. It led her into a world of stories, propaganda, myths; and a world of marvellous engineering, art and architecture... the stepwells.

While a Google search reveals a tonne about her research, adventures and also struggles in documenting the stepwells, we engaged with Victoria for a further chat about stepwells, India and the future that is to come.

Have you had any previous association with architecture and heritage?

I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in Art History, a subject that incorporates a lot of architecture. I was exposed to architecture growing up in Los Angeles and Chicago. Eventually, as a journalist, I wrote for several architecture magazines. It’s a topic that’s remained of huge interest to me wherever I travel in the world – ancient, modern, contemporary – I’m drawn to all of it. I have no specific training in heritage architecture, just a deep appreciation for it.

CENOTAPHS, ORCHHA, MADHYA PRADESH

"MP is one of my favorite states in India, full of marvels, but yet it`s only the temple complex in khajuraho that sees a larger audience. I always urge driving to Gwalior, one of the most rewarding road-trips in India. Orchha is a few hours away from Gwalior. Besides the many other important sights, this row of royal cenotaphs along the river is literally breathtaking."

How exactly did you encounter your very first step-well, the Rudabai-ni-Vav?

I saw Rudabai (-ni-Vav) by accident three decades ago on my first trip to India, where I was travelling with a small group of architects. They were focused on modern architecture around the country, which in Ahmedabad meant Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and B. V. Doshi. But seeing something from 1500 CE was a welcome detour for me, thanks to our guide. I had never heard of stepwells. I had absolutely no preconceptions or any idea of what to expect. That’s why the casual glance over the wall was such a transformative and powerful experience for me.

MATHURA, UTTAR PRADESH

"To me, any pilgrimage town in India is a must-see, full of pageantry, devotion, and authenticity that’s absent from overly-touristed destinations. Mathura, in between Delhi and Agra, is believed to be Krishna’s birthplace, and it’s teeming with people, temples, cows, beggars, and aggressive monkeys. Taking a lazy boat-ride along the picturesque Yamuna river is a scenic way to experience the bustle."

"Whether a unique stepwell, an unusual fort, a city like Vrindavan (take the local road from Agra, not the super-highway!) or a drive from Khajuraho to Gwalior (rather than hopping on the Shatabdi Express): these are also such meaningful, easy-to-reach, so-called “authentic” ways to experience India, and I hate for anyone to miss out."

At that time, what was the purpose of your visit to India?

It was fateful that I was with that group of architects in the first place, since I didn’t know any of them and the whole trip was fairly last-minute for me. I had a real craving to see India – something that arose suddenly and which was a little startling to me. I had studied nothing about India in school. Yet, I felt such an intense draw. A family friend knew of my interest, and she’d invited me to go on the small, month-long tour with the architects. She offered me her place, then convinced the organisers into letting me come instead. I lucked out that they brought me along. And it set me on my eventual obsession with stepwells.

MEENAKSHI TEMPLE, MADURAI, TAMIL NADU

"Madurai is an ancient city in the southern region of India, with one of the largest temple complexes in Tamil Nadu that’s said to attract about 15,000 visitors daily. This gopuram (tower) is just one of fourteen, and not even the tallest, each crammed with thousands of painted plaster figures of deities, animals, demons, in a riot of color. The profusion is dizzying, you could spend all day trying to understand the intricate assemblage, but inside the temple there’s much more to be seen – no cameras allowed, though. Madurai is one of my favorite places in India and, while not simple to reach, is well worth the effort."

What else interests you; pertaining to heritage, arts and crafts?

The list is too long. But wherever I am I at least try to see every monument. If there are crafts and arts available, I try to learn more. But most important from my end, I give lectures about the places tourists should visit that are so close to the sites seen during all the “cookie-cutter” tours, mainly through Rajasthan. Whether a unique stepwell, an unusual fort, a city like Vrindavan (take the local road from Agra, not the super-highway!) or a drive from Khajuraho to Gwalior (rather than hopping on the Shatabdi Express): these are also such meaningful, easy-to-reach, so-called “authentic” ways to experience India, and I hate for anyone to miss out.

LUDIYA, KUTCH, GUJARAT

"The Kutch region of Gujarat is an important crafts center, though many of its ancient traditions are on the verge of extinction. It’s like traveling back in time, going from one tiny village to the next, observing a specific type of block-printing in one place, weaving in another, and decorative embroidery in yet another hamlet a few kilometers away. Families live in the traditional round, mud “bhungas” renowned for their plaster and mirror ornamentation, each home an individualised work of art."

Are there any other architectural projects or initiatives that you would like to explore in the future?

I’m honestly not sure. I never expected to become obsessed and certainly never anticipated the book, which evolved a year ago. The entire stepwell trajectory just fell in my lap. I doubt I’ll be that lucky again, to stumble on something so important and so beautiful, yet so little known. But five years ago, during my first extended, 3-month stay, I’d also researched a few other topics – both architectural in nature – known in India but not in the west. Maybe I’ll pick up those threads. We’ll see!

CHAUSATH YOGINI TEMPLE, PADAWALI, MADHYA PRADESH

"It’s worth driving a few hours outside Gwalior for yet another of MP’s rarely-seen gems. This extraordinary 14th century circular temple is one of a very few that exist in India, known for the sixty-four shrines lining the interior wall. A larger Shiva temple is at center, and the imposing structure, reached by climbing a hill above the countryside, is thought to have inspired the Parliament building in New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens nearly six centuries later."

"The entire stepwell trajectory just fell in my lap. I doubt I’ll be that lucky again, to stumble on something so important and so beautiful, yet so little known. But five years ago, during my first extended, 3-month stay, I’d also researched a few other topics – both architectural in nature – known in India but not in the west. Maybe I’ll pick up those threads. We’ll see"

Keep watching this space for a detailed account of the book that Victoria wrote, thirty years after her first visit to India - The Vanishing Stepwells of India.