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BEYOND BISHNUPUR'S TEMPLES

Blending the aristocracy of architecture with artistic precision – Sanjay Das captures riveting tales hidden in the delicate carvings across Bishnupur's many historic temple spaces

Architecture and antiquity are old bedmates. Some of India's temples fall into the bracket of intricate and intriguing cultural traditions going back more than many centuries. The terracotta temples of Bishnupur and beyond, in nearby areas, are the archival study of photographer and graphic designer Sanjay Das who has been exploring them for more than a decade.

At Gallery Artcentrix in Delhi, Das's monochromatic images draw our attention to the dynasty of the Mallas, who were great patrons of architecture and art, overseeing a tradition of plaques and roofs all created with clay and laterite, to create a series of temples that stand as a testimony to India's artisanal aura and practices.

Visual vocabulary and form

Rewind to the 16th century – to the colonial kingdom of Bengal. Historically, we know that the Malla kingdom had shifted its capital from Padampur near Joypur to Bishnupur in the first half of the 16th century. Post-transition, all the major temple-building projects – both in terms of variety and artistry – were undertaken in and around Bishnupur. However, Joypur was not left barren. The grandest and probably the largest laterite stone temple, the Gokulchand shrine, was built here during the reign of Raghunath Singh in 1643. Equally important is the Shyamchand Temple. There are also plenty of family-owned terracotta temples from the post-Malla period.

Sanjay Das captures the magic and caprice of the terracotta temples of Bishnupur in a timeline of images that pitch the beauty and power of the past with the present. But in capturing the intrinsic timelessness of architectural details, there is also a poetic decadence that unravels as an architecture of humanism in the history of one of India's most ageless temples.

Architecture's transience

Ruins are a reminder of architecture's transience, but they also embody important projections of meaning and memory. The pictures of the doors itself freeze a moment of history in the tapestry of time. For centuries, ruins have been gazed upon and parsed for amusement, gratification and instruction; but ruins are an especially hardcore objectification of certain kinds of matter and atmosphere. Ruins are effectively architecture's memento mori, imbued with an unsettling melancholic charge that speaks to our deepest existentialist fears and fantasies. The Fleet of Ducks and the terracotta plaque of elephants, animals and warriors reflect an understanding of cultural dynamics and lifestyle.

'Ruins embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes' – writes art critic Brian Dillon. 'The ruined building is a remnant of and portal into the past, its decay is a concrete reminder of the passage of time.'

Patina of time

The Dasavtara is a riveting odyssey of the patina of time in the annals of faith and belief. The terracotta figurines in the panel stand as an example of a tottering tableau of ruins. We need a movement of the active cult of the ruin – preserved, studied, idealised and fetishised.

'The ideas that ruins awaken in me are great ones,' intoned Diderot in 1767. 'Everything turns to nothingness and everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time continues.' The terracotta ruins in the Krishna Leela are a way of seeing, embodiments of meaning projected onto heaps of materials created in the concentric of circular geometry. Precision becomes the key to the figurines balanced in the harmony of the symbolism of precision.

The Mahishasura Mardini is a tale that stands testimony to time. But the slow process of dismemberment that characterised the relics of antiquity and industry, allowing them to stand out of time as historic 'exemplars', is now at odds with the brutal rapidity of the modern ruin's span. The Char Bangla and the Krishna Temple are relics of history.

These archival photographs by Sanjay Das become Modernism's indelible visual epitaph, cementing its epic 'failure' in the minds of architects, critics, politicians and the wider public. The temples of Bishnupur reflect architecture as an optimistic cultural activity. The terracotta ruins exemplify the temples as a moment of sublime equilibrium between man's heavenward stretch and nature's erosive downward pull. What becomes clear is that the heritage ruin is not only a remnant of the past but that its fragments contain a history of the future as well.

What entices is when we examine the sculpted panels and plaques slowly. Apparently, the complexities and quality of artwork had developed with time. While the relatively older temples had tiles of abstract and floral designs, subsequent ones depicted independent scenes from everyday life or mythological episodes. It appears, when finally the artisans acquired adequate skills, they tried out sequential panels depicting scenes from whole epics.

Wall friezes show multi-oared ships set out for other shores, seeking trade, conquest. Other panels show deer, monkeys, horses, tigers and boars. Elephants trumpeted, lions roared, hunters, courtesans, courtiers, kings, queens and crones were frozen in the zest of everyday life. There is so much exuberance here, such a feeling of joyousness, so much vigorous attention to detail. The sculptural ruin is a new realm of art.

Historic preservation has obvious implications for tourism. How and when do we limit access to the site to prevent damage? Should historic buildings be preserved as something static or as a part of a living culture? The ASI must balance aesthetic concerns with historic preservation, economic development and ethical concerns that arise from tourism. India's tourism has challenging goals in the preservation of Indian heritage in its temples and this show goes a long way in testifying the urgency of this assignment.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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