Avtar is 32 years old and has studied in both America and India and has a Bachelors in English and Philosphy. His interests are sports, travel, food and reading non-fiction. Although a journalist, Avtar's first book 'The Beauty of These Present Things...' was published by Penguin India. He has also written widely for magazines in both America and India. Below is a piece written for 'Mans World.' He now lives in Goa.
The dross of our peculiar time has made cynics of my generation. Integrity isn’t even something we expect, any more, in the people we meet. So, when the moment of recognition arrives; when you realize that the person in front of you has integrity to spare; that he has more than enough for you and him together, and that he is using it to change whatever he can of this transient world; that moment can leave you speechless.
Mr. Vijayanath Shenoy, ex- of Syndicate Bank and now of the Hasta Shilpa Trust, Manipal, Karnataka, has left many people speechless. Including me.
And I haven’t even begun to know him yet.
Mr. Shenoy is a heritage conservationist.
Really, you ask with a bored yawn. So’s my aunt with the silvery laugh and Kanjeevaram sarees who’s on this board and that committee and hosts a big banquet every single year at the club and runs INTACH in my town. So what?
Well, he’s been at it for more than forty years. He started the Sangeeth Sabha of Udupi in 1961 to foster appreciation of Indian music, dance, theatre and other performing arts, funding the society from his own pocket. He served as the secretary for 32 years, and brought people like V.Subbalakshmi, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Zakir Hussain and even Hema Malini to Udupi—if you ever visit Udupi, you’ll realize why that is such an achievement. He was also the secretary of the Karnataka Sangh, an Udupi literary organization. He organized celebrations to mark special days in the South Kanara calendar, and was a moving spirit behind the Udupi Paryayam—a biennial festival around the Krishna temple which is indivisible from this temple town—for almost twenty years.
In between, he moved from Udupi to Manipal, into a concrete home that he found didn’t suit him. And so, he sought about for a home that he could really feel at home in. So he started walking.
This was in 1974.
He covered thousands of kilometers by foot and on buses, looking all over South Kanara and the adjoining areas for the traditional homes that he knew were there, the old mane. Homes rooted in the land that spawned them, organic upshoots of the earth itself. Mud and straw walls, mud and lime plastered, thatch and tile roofs, and skeletons made of wood. Homes of a majestic scale but of an intimate nature, where the connections between the family and their land and within the family itself could be sustained. Homes open to the world but protected from the elements. Homes of a simple, elegant beauty.
He saw the homes being torn down. Sacrificed to a more ‘modern’ age.
He started collecting artifacts from those homes. First moveable things, vessels and small implements and the like; then the pillars, the beams, the windows and tiles and large agricultural implements. People were only too happy to give him the remnants of what they plainly considered junk.
Mr. Shenoy brought all that ‘junk’ back to Manipal and built himself a home. And people started packing in by the busload to see it. His young family hated the circus, his wife hated the strangers walking about her home. The house itself was built according to the Vastu Shastra, well before that ancient text was ‘re-discovered’ and made the province of ‘specialists’ plying their trade through this nation’s classifieds. It was called Hasta Shilpa, and Mr. Shenoy preferred to move his family out of the home he’d walked all over his world to build, rather than close it off to the people he felt needed to see it.
I repeat, Vijayanath Shenoy is a heritage conservationist.
And still the houses come down.
I spent some time in Mr. Shenoy’s company. Walking around with him, walking unannounced into people’s homes, seeing him playing the genial paterfamilias to more families than I can remember. Wherever he goes, and these are landlords, remember, accustomed to standing on their own dignity; he is treated with deference. They all seem to know him, respect him; they know his work. The first time I see this, he isn’t even with us. Harish Pai, his young associate and most committed disciple, shows us around. He drives us in the late monsoon twilight down a winding country road, paddy and palms on both sides. At the end of the road, a house rises out of the fields. This is Hirebettu Mane, the first house we see.
Inside, the old lady of the home smiles at Harish. She has met him before. She gives us the run of her home, shows us the inner courtyard around which the home is centred. She leads us to the agricultural courtyard at the back, enclosed by the compound walls. The cattle are at one end, the kitchen for the help off to one side. The first sheafs of the paddy crop are already tied up and hanging from various parts of the house, and will hang there till they wither away, or are picked clean by the birds.
Harish shows us around with the light of the believer shining in his eyes. Clare takes photos, entranced, as nuggets of the house come tumbling out of Harish and the old lady. I feel the old carved pillars and scuff about barefooted on the red-oxide floors. I finger the ancient old beams, the wild-jack mammoths that have stood, so far, the test of heat, moisture, and time. I note the low windows that let the breeze in while keeping the light out, I look at the old kitchen with its wood-burning stoves and open attic, so that the smoke will cure the produce upstairs. I see the television sitting awkwardly in a corner of the courtyard and the electric wires arcing overhead, an uneasy truce between the house and modernity, each unsure of what to do with the other.
We watch night come to South Kanara from the wooden balcony of the old lady’s home. The crumbling low carved balustrade is rickety, but the view of green fields turning to black is magic. We sit on the floor, of course. The balustrade was built in a time before chairs.
This house is old, says Harish. Maybe three hundred years. It isn’t in good shape. Wood and earth share the mortality of the rest of the organic world, of course. Moisture, termites, the lack of maintenance: it will be expensive to restore. He should know. Because he has come to know so much about these homes, because he is an engineer with a background in construction: he offers traditional restoration services to the owners on a cost-plus basis.
The old lady of the house smiles as she shows us out. That’s the story of these homes, really. We will see, wherever we go, that young people don’t live in them. They are the last refuges of grandparents and old aunts and uncles, and once they’re gone, the family can’t wait to be rid of what it considers a white elephant. They are old and expensive and bitterly contested on account of their extreme age, and the land is worth more than the house. Then, of course, these are well-educated upwardly mobile communities of hereditary landlords, Bunts, Brahmins and Jains for the most part, the generations scattered in Mumbai, Bangalore, and abroad. The men who call the shots don’t really want these homes.
But here, in Hirebettu Mane, there is hope. Mr. Shenoy’s persistence has paid off. The man of the house, the old lady’s son, meets us outside. He lives in town, but he visits here. Harish talks to him, the other man listening and talking animatedly. Harish tells us with a smile that he wants him, Harish, to restore the house. He will raise the money. Whatever it takes.
The smile of the believer is infectious. That man couldn’t wait to be rid of that house, says Harish. But I’ve been here, Mr. Shenoy has been here, he’s shouted at that guy in front of me. You should have seen it. That big landlord standing there with his head down and his hands behind his back, saying yes Mr. Shenoy, no Mr. Shenoy. And now he knows the value of what he has.
Hirebettu Mane, at least, will be saved. We’re smiling too, as we leave that old house behind.
But it hasn’t always been like that.
Mr. Shenoy is the sort of avuncular uncle you wish you had had when you were growing up. His temper is famously short, but we don’t see that. Luckily, with us, he’s in fine form. Full of stories, his fingers gesticulating to make a point, his catch phrase, ‘actually, see’, punctuating his delivery. His face lights up as he remembers a particular story, a trenchant turn of phrase from one of his favourite books, a house glimpsed through the trees.
He tells me about the house that started him on his mission.
What a house it was, he says. Grand, but not built to be so. It was a home, a lovely place, beautifully proportioned. And the setting.
His head shakes with the rhythms of his remembering. He saw it for the first time in 1974, or thereabouts, he says. When he’d first started wandering about. It marked an epoch for him, that house, a symbol of what he loved most about the vernacular architecture he was seeking out. Ten years later, while leaving his wife at the hospital for a complaint he doesn’t specify, his own two children holding his hands, he is recognized by a labourer he had met at that house. You should go up there, he is told by the labourer. Quickly. It’s coming down tomorrow.
Mr. Shenoy’s hands fly, as he tells me about how he left his children at home, alone, to make the long journey up to a remote corner of Malnad, to the house that was such a talisman to him. A few buses, a long walk on foot, and arrival in the evening at the house. The owner, a pugnacious landlord, recognizes him as well. He is sitting there, surrounded by his men, an unnatural gaiety about him as he laughs and gestures and prepares himself for the next day.
You, he shouts. I remember you. Take a look around quickly. Tomorrow, this comes down.
Mr. Shenoy remembers the pain. He remembers beseeching the man, entreating him to reconsider. He remembers the man getting angry, ordering him off the property. He remembers the man’s air of wounded pride: how dare this dusty man talk to me like this on my own land?
He remembers spending the night on the stoop of a labourer’s hut, his own young children alone at home. The sun breaking over him, the walk back to the house. The men already up the roof, stripping the tiles, throwing them down. And Mr. Shenoy pleading, for the last time, for time itself. I’ll write to the ASI, to this committee, to that board. We’ll save this place.
The sun rising in time with the landlord’s anger. And the shadow of something else. Of guilt, perhaps, mixed with the man’s reluctance to admit his wrong. Mr. Shenoy remembers, finally, his own anger.
Now, he chuckles about it, a lovely rumbling sound that will stay with me. You should have seen me, he says, shaking his head. I was so thin. And this man was a big man. A landlord! I was shouting at him! Calling him names, calling him an idiot! It was as if Kali was speaking through me. Kali!
You think this house belongs only to you? I asked him that. You think this house belongs only to you!
I stare at Mr. Shenoy, transfixed.
That man grabbed me by the shirt and shook me. And I kept shouting. I couldn’t stop, I was shaking with rage. He would have killed me that day, that man. A young girl finally came and dragged him away, telling me to go.
I had to walk away. And I watched that old house come down.
That day, I resolved to build myself a house. Hasta Shilpa. And to save as many houses as I could.
I know Mr. Shenoy is a raconteur. He has told this story before, complete with flourishes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t speak to me. It articulates so much. We are not the owners of our own heritage. We are only its trustees, charged by the weight of history to guard it and pass it along to the next generation. I think, as well, of the landlord, his own guilt dressed up as pride. How must it have felt, to know that you have chosen to be the agent of the destruction of your own history? No wonder he tried to strangle Mr. Shenoy.
I would have tried to strangle him too.
“Nature chooses it own champions,” Mr. Shenoy says later, in a reflective mood. “History as well. I’m grateful it was me.”
We are sitting in the porch of an amazing home, the Kunjur Chowkimane, a 200 year-old Brahmin home made of wood that is fanciful and functional at the same time. It is the first home that Mr. Shenoy acquired for the HERITAGE VILLAGE. He still directs operations from that house.
Oh yes. Mr. Shenoy didn’t just build himself a home and say he was done dreaming.
If people won’t listen to him, if they will persist in letting their own homes rot, or worse, will sell them for scrap and the value of its constituent parts to antique dealers, then Mr. Shenoy steps in and buys the house. As a last resort, remember, for a home is best preserved in the environment in which it was born. But if nothing else will work, if the house is a good representation of its own kind, then he acquires the house.
Then, with the help of Harish and a grid they’ve worked out, painstakingly, the house is taken down, with a label on every last wooden peg. They put the whole thing in trucks and take the entire concern down to Manipal, and then they refurbish every single element, and then they build it again. Exactly as it would have been, when it was first made.
They’ve got almost twenty homes now, and they plan to open the doors in late 2004, perhaps early 2005. It isn’t just grand old palaces; Mr. Shenoy has been hunting about for a fisherman’s hut that will accurately reflect the idea, the very essence of a fisherman’s hut for a while now. The village, when it is ready, should reflect a community. There will be roads, bylanes, crossroads. An idealized community, to be sure, but still a community. It isn’t a circus.
The Kunjur house is the first one.
It took years for him to painstakingly track down and correspond with every last one of the heirs to the home. He had to convince everyone involved that his intentions were good, that he would preserve the house, indeed, restore it. It was in a shocking condition. Finally, after years of parley, the families involved said, yes, go ahead. Take it.
The trials they underwent then stood them in good stead. They made mistakes, and learnt from them. Their craftsmen had to relearn traditional techniques to put the house together again. Now, the Heritage Village employs a core group of craftsmen who know the skills that, in the normal course of events, would have been passed on to them by their own fathers. Seeing the wooden shell coming up, as he puts it, was exhilarating.
Today, the Kunjur house is pristine. I can’t even believe it is two hundred years old. The wood shines on, the sunlight in the courtyard still illumines the home, along with the spirit of the people that built it. The beams are sturdy and seem as if they will keep this house standing for at least another two hundred years. The family, apparently, is ecstatic.
Mr. Shenoy and Harish sit there and direct the craftsmen hither and thither, to the work that is going on in the Veerashaiva Jungamma Mutt, in the Darbar Hall they rescued from North Karnataka, in the Harkur Olaginamane house that is being re-fitted as a gallery space. In the distance is the crafts centre, where traditional artisans will find a space to carry on their work. The many treasures that Mr. Shenoy has claimed from the wreckage of history will be displayed in the very homes that they would have graced, all those years ago. I look at his incredible collection of Thanjavur paintings, one of which could sustain his operations for a year, if he chose to sell it. The Bhoota masks, terrifying and fascinating, are brought out to us. Children’s toys and adults’ weapons lie around, waiting to be thrown in the air and freed from their scabbards.
This Village is an archive. Just as an old house is. You can see it as a collection of its constituent parts, a reasonably valuable doorway, ‘an utterly exquisite carved ceiling, my dear, and you’ll never believe how much they wanted for it in Jewtown’: or you can see it as an organic whole, infused with the spirit of all the people that have lived within it, the culmination of the tradition of knowledge and craftsmanship that built it.
Mr. Shenoy isn’t just preserving mud and thatch and wood.
“This effort is born out of pain,” he tells me. “There is no positive pleasure; it is, rather, the relieving of pain.”
I see why watching, ineffectually, as home after home comes down will come close to breaking your spirit. But to sit here on the stoop of the Kunjur Chowkimane, watching a dream take shape; that will relieve a lot of pain.
He tells me another story. A District Collector, a nice Malayali gentleman, came to see his home, the one he’d built. He walked around quietly, then, later, asked Mr. Shenoy whether he had any dreams left.
Mr. Shenoy told him that that house was just the beginning, that he wanted to build a village of old homes. He laughs as he tells me that the DC almost fell off his chair.
He tells me of another civil servant, the man who allotted the land in Manipal to the trust, so that the work could go ahead. Because of a story he’d read about me in a magazine, chortles Mr. Shenoy. I grin too, happy that this once my journalistic brethren have smoothed my path for me, instead of mining it.
I ask him about the history of people giving him things; land, artifacts, their own homes when they knew Mr. Shenoy could not afford them. He nods. It’s true. For every person who wants money for his history, there are others who will give it of their own will, because they know that Mr. Shenoy will be respectful, because he wants to preserve it.
“This place is only a catalyst,” he says. “So people will conserve their own histories.”
I can see that. Most people don’t recognize the value of the things they see around them. It is only when the antique dealer comes knocking with a cheque in his hand that that particular conceptual shift occurs. By the time you work out that the old paddy basket your ancestors stored their rice in is worth more than the five hundred rupees you got for it, it might be too late. But Mr. Shenoy and Harish and others like them are trying.
As I’ve said, I’ve seen it myself. Mr. Shenoy leads us into one old home after another. The inhabitants hurrying to give him the best seat, tea being prepared for the honoured guest. Many of these people have seen what he’s doing with the Heritage Village. Perhaps many of them want to sell their homes to him, or at least the moveable stuff they think they can spare. Every day, Harish tells me ruefully, every day I get enquiries about old homes and the things inside them.
But Mr. Shenoy smiles and laughs and tells them that they must preserve their own homes. Their own histories. And I see that it is working. As they nod their heads and engage him in conversation and as we are lead around yet another beautiful old home, I see why.
Mr. Shenoy hasn’t just collected old things and homes. He’s collected the very histories of these people. With his patience and dry humour and elephantine memory, he knows more about these people then, in some cases, they do. In one Bunt home, where the entire family is gathered for a ritual, coming from Mumbai and Madras and Bangalore and even abroad, I ask the eldest brother, our guide, about a connection he has with the owner of another big house, nearby. He thinks for a moment, glances at his brothers who are looking equally clueless, and then turns to Mr. Shenoy. “Ask him,” he says. “If anyone knows, he will. About anything connected with the Bunts or my family. Go ahead, ask him.”
As it happens, Mr. Shenoy knows the answer, and laughingly berates the brothers for not knowing it as well. They take it in their stride.
But Mr. Shenoy doesn’t always laugh when he criticizes people. As I’ve been told, he has a short fuse. Different reasons are given for this. I don’t know him well enough to judge, but I prefer to think of it as the irascibility of a man who knows his own mind. When you combine intellectual rigour, as he has, with ethical integrity, and leaven it with the approach of the aesthete; well, why would you suffer fools gladly?
But it is a fact that he has made the people around him miserable, more than once. He tells me about the interview his wife gave to a popular women’s magazine; about the pain she spoke of, the pain of being constantly reminded that there are other things in your husband’s life than his own family, about her home being invaded by strangers, about his constant disappearances. He almost cried himself, he says, when he read that story.
His associates tell me of his mercurial nature, about how he will change his mind suddenly, about their heading him off potential points of aggravation. I have heard so much about it, I walk on eggshells around him. Not that he ever flies off the handle at me.
He is hysterically funny on the subject of government agencies. Hasta Shilpa got its startup money from NORAD, the Norwegian government’s aid arm. He has approached the Indian government for money, but has seen precious little. He frowns at INTACH, thinks the ASI is good only for laying lawns and putting up boards. They are babus, he says dismissively, even though the land that the Village stands on was given to Hasta Shilpa by a babu of the Karnataka government. But then he’s seen the world. If he isn’t entitled to his opinions, who is?
Money comes in from private individuals and companies. A bank or two is involved, now. But he isn’t too worried about the money. It will come.
What are the things he’s happy about, after all these years, I ask him.
I wish those young people who have chosen to walk in his footsteps yet still fear his anger, could hear him.
He is happiest about the people he has motivated to work for heritage conservation. He singles out Harish, with whom he shares a relationship that goes way beyond mere association. He is a mentor to Harish, a guru even. He is glad that Harish has taken on the work of Hasta Shilpa. He has the eye, says Mr. Shenoy. He is getting the knowledge. And he feels the spirit of what it is that moved him, Mr. Shenoy, in the first place. There are others, Ashit Amin amongst them, that have been walking with Mr. Shenoy since the early days. They devote what time they can, as well. I hear the tenderness in his voice, where I have been led to expect steel. These young people, and the others like them that are drawn towards the force of Mr. Shenoy’s passion, will ultimately be the bearers of his legacy.
I ask him about this legacy. Does he, to quote a DC from all those years ago, have any dreams left?
He unships that throaty chuckle again.
Of course I do, he says. This is only the beginning.
He has written to various governments all over India. He envisions a Heritage Village in every state of the Union, and a spectacular Bharat Gram, that will include specimens from all over the country.
He is nearly seventy years old. This man who is the conscience of all those that would tear down their old homes and sell them as pricey antiques. He is the guardian of their memories and the keeper of their stories. He doesn’t just preserve houses; he preserves their histories.
“You think this house belongs only to you?” He shouted that at a landlord twenty years ago. He hasn’t stopped since.
Vijayanath Shenoy is a heritage conservationist. And he has only just begun.
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