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Wild dreams take shape

In restoring old homes, Vijaynath Shenoy is telling a story, influencing people to look at heritage in a different way. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN on the man and his mission.

Grand structure -- the two-century-old Vaderhobli House.

"SO much wood in this house, but not a single nail. See how every door turns on a pivot? And this rope for holding while climbing the stairs. Now pull the window down, it's a seat now. On this ledge here, the wooden bars let breezes in, but curtain the women. Why this space above the courtyard pillars? For sparrows' nests! Look down, that's the spot where the daughter of the house had her music lesson with the harmonium. Behind her, near the back door, the mother sat cutting vegetables. On the other side the grandmother stretched her legs with palm leaf fan in hand."

Twenty-six reassembled houses

The man's excitement is infectious, his eye for detail surprises. So does his memory for anecdotes connected with every bit of space in the old Kukunoor Mane (house) he has reconstructed. Not to live in, but preserved for posterity. To walk into the Hastha Shilpa Trust's heritage village in Manipal (see map) is to experience the past in socio-politico-economic-aesthetic dimensions. The 26 houses reassembled from ruined, abandoned, mistreated bits and leftover pieces, with awesome care and amazing tenderness, is to appreciate the vanished skills of past generations. To sense the values of bygone eras. It is also to feel a deep sense of respect for the man who has made it his life's mission to preserve whatever he can of the lost heritage. For Vijaynath Shenoy, this reconstruction of old houses in the acres of land donated by the State government is not a conservationist's project. It is an overwhelming passion.

Wild dream, crazy struggles

The story of the heritage village is the story of a wild dream, realised through crazy struggles. A bank clerk-turned-officer becomes obsessed with old houses. He begins to gather "old stuff" until they spill out of his little house. How did he find them? Give Shenoy a chair, a glass of whiskey, a sympathetic ear, and the raconteuring never ends. "One day I cycled past a wedding celebration and stopped in horror when I saw the big piece of wood thrust into the fire for cooking biryani. It was an ornate pillar from some old house. I stopped, pulled it out, put out the fire from the charred end. A crowd gathered, the cooks screamed, the bride's father yelled. They threatened to beat me up. I wouldn't let go. I offered to pay for the pillar there and then. Of course I had no money." The tale twists and turns to end in the father giving away the pillar to the madman. At another time, he is taken blindfolded through narrow mazes to an ancient house. How can he find it again and save it from demolition?

He scatters anecdotage as he guides you through his "houses". "See the Peshwa wada? I wrote and begged a million times when I heard of its miserable state, but no answer. Somehow we bought the place, numbered each part, transported it here, and put it up."

Invited to the bhumi pooja, the un-cooperative erstwhile heir almost fell at Shenoy's feet. With tears in his voice Shenoy discloses that almost all past owners become emotional when they see how their despised patrimony is restored with loving minds and hands. For Shenoy too they are sacred moments.

The oldest from Vijayanagara

"This is the oldest house we have, from the Vijayanagara empire," he announces proudly and walks into a simple structure. "The owner wrote to me repeatedly. He had offers from hotels for piecemeal use of parts. He wanted to save it as it was," says Shenoy and dramatically throws open the inner door. Lit up by floor lights the room is a-dazzle with magnificent woodwork. The next stop is beside the 180-year-old Basle mission house. "German Protestant missionaries came to Mangalore in 1834 and set up tile factory, printing press, publishing houses etc. This house will display that history." The Trust is aware that the reconstructed houses must be animated with museums, seasonal festivals, craftsmen's ateliers, and folk arts. Classical artistes are mesmerised by the ambience. "Rajan and Sajan Mishra wanted to sing here," recalls Shenoy. "Pandit Shivkumar Sharma exclaimed, `why can't I play here instead of the ugly modern auditorium'?"

Ironically, Shenoy began to chase his grail after the 1970s Land Reform Act which led to old homes being destroyed in divisions of property. Villages were emptied of the migrant young which had old homes eventually ending up in the sawmills, or gobbled up by luxury hotels.

Distraught by such wholesale destructions, Shenoy started salvaging whatever he could. He was submerged in mounting debts, his house left with little room for its human inhabitants. But the obsession remained.

Sound -- exterior of the 160-year-old Hengavalli House.

An article about his heritage frenzy bore strange results. "I was trying to borrow more money from a friend who wanted me to repay my loan, when a Lucknow man arrived in a limousine and offered Rs. 2 crores for my house to be transported to Bangalore. My delighted friend slipped into my pocket the Rs. 500 I had asked for, assured of recovering his entire loan. I sent the limousine back. Why did I need 2 crores when my need of the day had been met by my friend?"

The house swarmed with visitors. One of them, the local Deputy Commissioner said, "Do you have any more dreams?" and sanctioned the donation of six acres for Shenoy's madder fantasy: a heritage village. It became real when NORAD, a Norwegian agency, generously supported Shenoy's wood conservation projects of restoration, documentation, readaptive use of rebuilt structures, workshops, seminars, publications ... Shenoy handed over his own house to the Hastha Shilpa Trust which runs the heritage village, and functions as its secretary. A group of young men bitten by the same bug, assist him enthusiastically on field trips, searching, locating, documenting, photographing, sketching, making notes, then transporting and reassembling the structure in its new location.

Some of the those structures in the heritage village house masks, bronzes, dolls, puppets. A life size Serfoji beckons from the wall, while Ravi Varma's gods and goddesses sport in serial frames. In an open gallery, massive tribal deities loom under the shafts of dappled evening light. The narrow lanes are lined with saplings belonging to the native regions of the houses.

Seminar on conservation

Intricate -- a partial view of the three-century-old Durbar Hall of the Mudhol Palace.

A national seminar at the heritage village (February 5 to 6) drew experts from many parts of India to talk on heritage conservation. While every speaker expressed wonder and appreciation for Shenoy's labours, achievements, many also mentioned that the reconstructions were not always authentic, they found the plinth all wrong and the use of other materials, or the substitution of tiled roofs for the flat roofs of rainfree regions. Others pointed out errors in the dates attributed to houses and art objects. The use of coloured wood for glass, or hanging drapes in the nawab mahal were dismissed as tacky. Almost everyone rued the absence of documentation. ("Everything is in one man's head, not even scribbled down as points.") Shenoy was flooded with suggestions for improvement, and about sources of funding, now that the Norwegian sponsorship is over. "I don't care for suggestions. I am confident that I will see it through," was the man's response.

Shenoy's longterm associate, architect Rajesh Pai explains, "Purists may see flaws. But at the end of the day, every visitor, scholar or layman, is deeply moved by what has been done by this one single man. Everything is excused. Most experts feel guilty because, with all that knowledge they haven't done anything like this heritage village." In restoring old homes, Vijaynath Shenoy is telling a story. His dogged efforts and emotional rapport touch hearts, and influence people to look at heritage in a different way, as a source of joy, an enrichment we cannot afford to lose.

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