Publication: The Indian Express
Twenty years and 300 stepwells later, Richard Cox says his journey is still incomplete. A senior lecturer at Cardiff School of Art and Design in the UK, Cox is a painter and curator with a deep fascination for baolis. An aberration to the rule, theres nothing like it in the Western world, he says. He has created a large collection of digital images and drawings of stepwells, from which he curates an exhibition titled Subterranean Architecture, Stepwells in Western India, which has travelled to 13 galleries in the UK, the US and India, since 2008. An exhibition with of new works will be held in several Indian cities in August.
Stepwells are common to Western India and were traditionally used to store groundwater in areas with water scarcity. In various eras and under different rulers, these became grand and scientific in design as well as common meeting places for residents, though now most are dirty, dry or unused. Cox, as he revealed during a recent visit to Chandigarh for the International Art Conclave, organised by the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi, came across his first stepwell during a trip to Rajasthan in 1993. He was visiting the state to set up the Wales Rajasthan Visual Artists Exchange, which brought together 35 artists from Wales and Rajasthan.
The rich visual culture of India, and its traditional architecture made a huge impact on me. When two artists from Rajasthan took me to visit Chand Baori, I was left stunned. It was a spectacular piece of art in its own right, with aspects of the Hindu and Mughal architectures adding to its magnificence. That moment, I knew I had to take a step forward to study, research, document and later exhibit works on the stepwells, adds Cox.
He kept coming back to India to visit more stepwells, thus expanding his touring exhibition. His collection includes more than 300 stepwells from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, and include one built in the 8th century. As their name suggests, access to the well was by way of a series of steps descending from ground level to the water tank below. The nature of these steps could be simple or complex, of varying size and unusual and distinctive designs. This encouraged me to make drawings of some of these wells and display these alongside photographs, he says.
The exhibition has extensive data on the construction, structure, style and size of the stepwells as well as the social status of the people who built them. The 18th century Neemrana Ki Baori, constructed by Thakur Lank Singh, is nine-storey deep and the largest Cox has visited. The last two levels are underwater, he adds.
He has a special admiration for Chand Baori Abhaneri, one of the largest tanks in Rajasthan, as well as Rani Ki Bami (Queens Well) in Bundi, built in 1600 AD, counted as one of the finest. A few stepwells in Gujarat, including the Sun Temple and Tank in Modhera, and Paten Ki Baori, have undergone major restoration work recently. I photographed many all over again to document the changes, and added to the exhibition, which changes in size every year, says Cox, adding that as he keeps discovering more stepwells, his journey with Indias water architecture keeps flowing.