The exhibition was a collaborative effort of a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, young graduates, students and concerned citizens who documented sixteen structures, among more, that are found across the city of Ahmedabad. Initially interested in the architectural merits of these structures, the study and exhibition went on to raise questions about the larger issues of landscape, settlement pattern and social relationships to which these buildings are connected. Within this framework, a conversation on their present condition and value and the issues of ‘heritage’ in the context of the city were also initiated.
The exhibition was structured into four parts. The first part dealt with the relationship between surface water, ground water and settlement. In the gently undulating landscape of North Gujarat, the relationship between surface water (talavadi), percolation (soil), and ground water (vaav) sources shape the pattern of settlement, and the manner in which the larger human habitat is structured. Stepwells are buildings that make this visible, while functioning to serve daily needs. While surface water is essential for agriculture, animal husbandry and rearing and human washing, this water is considered inappropriate for drinking. Typically, the talavadi is adjacent to (outside) the settlement for reasons of health and hygiene. This domain of stagnant surface water is often associated with deities, gods and goddesses that do not bode well. This is the space in which we find cremation areas (samshaan) which are placed on the edges of such water bodies. Drinking water is almost always from a ground water source - a dug well, or in the cases documented here, a stepwell (vaav). The position of the stepwell is often between the settlement and the talavadi. In the present context, observations show that where the talavadi still holds water, the well too is alive. However, where the talavadi has been filled in, or its sources blocked, the well too has dried out, suggesting a relationship between the surface water of the talavadi and the ground water of the stepwell.
One might conjecture that through ideas of purity and hygiene encoded in traditional social practices, it was ensured that surface water must percolate and be filtered by the earth before it’s seen to be fit for drinking. The talavadi and the vaav are both essential to the settlement and bind it to both the surface and the depth of the earth.
The second part of the exhibition drew from the work of Purnima Mehta Bhatt who looks at the stepwell from a gender perspective. Stepwells are ‘women’s spaces’. Many are patronised by women, built by women for women and often are dedicated to women or goddesses. The well has been a place where women meet while fetching water, washing, bathing and cleaning. It is ‘their space within the public domain’. Interestingly, the third part of the exhibition, which looks at ‘Inhabitation’, documents that stepwells that are now being used as temples and shrines are invariably dedicated to an incarnation of the Mother Goddess, referred to as maata in Gujarati. Some of these Goddesses are at the heart of a cult exclusive to women. In villages, this cult continues to flourish even today. These local goddesses are worshiped and their blessings are invoked by women for protection, health and well-being. The insides of stepwells, whether through embellishment or inhabitation continue to celebrate the feminine.
The inhabitation of the buildings by the immediate community has ensured that these structures still find themselves as active spaces within the urban fabric. This raises questions about the abstract manner in which the idea of ‘heritage’ is constructed and discussed, its emphasis on the notion of ‘original’ form and use of buildings and the more difficult question of, ‘whose heritage is it?’. The inhabited stepwells of Ahmedabad throw up another model for the manner in which ‘heritage’ is engaged with. These structures are not kept in their ‘original’ condition. They are occupied, used, and altered to be integrated into the daily lives and routines of people. The people for whom these structures have meaning are participators. They are constantly engaged in the rituals that tie these building to a larger social context. It is their inhabitation that makes these buildings ‘theirs’. The question of ‘heritage’ forms the fourth and final part of the exhibition. The contestation between ideas of heritage and the inevitable call for conservation, and the organic occupation and use of these structures as an alternative to the ‘museumization’ raises the final questions.