The brave vision and the tireless efforts of Vijayanath Shenoy created an almost sacred space for Indian heritage in Manipal, Karnataka
The structures we live in and around tell tales of the art, culture, beliefs, taboos, habits, patterns, and choices of the times. The consumerism of today’s modern world doesn’t always do justice to the innumerable possibilities that the expressions of the individual or a community can churn out.
Traditional architecture is not just about manifestation/demonstration of creativity and craftsmanship of our ancestors but is the tangible cultural heritage of our country.
One man’s vision to ensure cultural continuity through the preservation of traditional structures and objects translated into a sprawling heritage village in Manipal. U Vijayanath Shenoy, the man behind the repository called the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village, passed away on 9 March 2017. His legacy, however, will stand tall for many a decade to come.
What Vijayanath Shenoy, who could have been just another retired bank employee if not for his disapproval of the state of heritage structures, has left behind is a labour of love that gifts each and every visitor an experience of having landed a few centuries back in time. Every single visitor to the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village is not just awestruck by the grandeur or the effort but also astonished in plain disbelief at the possibility of one man realising his dream in such a manner.
Rightly lauded as being to ‘built-architecture’ what A K Ramanujam was to literature, Vijayanath Shenoy, or Shenoy maam as he was fondly called, was equipped with nothing but his passion for heritage conservation. On this World Heritage Day, we can surely feel grateful to a man who literally gave his all to save the dying ‘vernacular architecture’.
A pioneer in the field, Shenoy’s inclination towards the arts saw him set up the Sangeeth Sabha in Udupi in the 1960’s. All his savings from his bank job would be spent in making these musical gatherings happen that saw the who’s who of music, be it Carnatic or Hindustani, perform in a town whose name was but another one in the map of coastal Karnataka. His association with music was from his days when he visited his friend’s house as a young man to listen to music as those were the days when owning music records was a luxury very few could afford. He had an extremely keen ear for music, and despite being untrained in any form of it, he could identify any raga within the first ten-fifteen seconds. His only training was the time he spent at his friend’s house.
That was just the beginning of a journey of artistic exuberance.
When Shenoy, as a young bank officer, was required to move to Tenkepet Udupi, he had to leave his home and move into a RCC house, a concrete one. The modern construction, he realised, was too warm for his liking. This nudged him to study how people lived in earlier times. His tours around the coastal town led him to the Heerebettu house, which was four to five hundred years old. He found the house to be cool and comforting even in the peak of summer. This plain mud construction caught his interest, and that was what kickstarted a journey that spanned over four decades.
He began to undertake these journeys in pursuit of heritage structures and traditional ‘built architecture’. Most of these journeys were on foot as there weren’t many options available in those days. A bicycle maybe was the highest luxury he could think of.
Those were the times when the Land reforms Act had been passed. The tiller had been declared the owner. A silent victim of this Act were these heritage houses as it wiped out most landlords. The family structure began to crumble, and as each faction began to migrate, the mammoth structures were left at the mercy of one person from the family who stayed back. The end of joint families marked the beginning of the decline of these structures that housed them.
With the structures, treasure troves of tradition too were slowly being plundered. It is then that Shenoy intervened. People had begun to trade the huge thick wooden columns that were housed in these structures to saw mills in exchange for the latest ‘furniture'. Shenoy landed at these saw mills and bought each of those pieces paying for the worth of wood that they would fetch. Thus began the journey that culminated in the huge stretch of architectural wonder that is the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village. One pillar at a time, one artefact at a time, he turned his own house into the Hasta Shilpa house.
While the local authorities initially weren’t as willing, the Norwegian government lent the first helping hand giving into the umpteen number of letters he penned. The government of India joined in later when it gave him six-acres of land to set his dream project up.
Today, a total of 28 structures stand tall at the heritage village among which are a host of traditional houses, museums, palaces and art galleries. This also includes the 500-year-old Kamal Mahal built by a king of the Vijayanagar empire, a 200-year-old house of a Brahmin family which is built entirely in the Kerala style of architecture but was located in South Canara district of Karnataka, and the Mudhol Palace Durbar Hall, a visual testimony to Maratha rule in the Deccan region.
Every piece of this sprawling work of restored architectural heritage is a reflection of Shenoy maams’ vision, for that was the greatest gadget he had. With no cameras or any such equipment, it was his photographic memory that made this magic happen. He was known to recount every single curve on a pillar of every house he visited.
Different spaces in the heritage village have different kinds of music playing. This was again his special touch as he insisted that every space had a character and could be paired with a raga that resonated the same character. Sturdy, strong, ‘manly’ rooms or spaces have ragas playing that induce a similar feel, while in spaces with intricate carvings and gentle ‘feminine’ work, one is treated to softer, gentler ragas.
Well, calling a visit to this place a heritage tour would be an insult, for it is almost a pilgrimage; one that takes you through time and of course, space. And all this because one man dreamt it.