Restaurants, cinema halls, swimming pools, and malls had started to reopen. In February 2022, restrictions were being lifted gradually and life seemed to be coming back on track. As soon as Manoj Arora sensed a semblance of normalcy, he packed his photography equipment and rushed to Hampi, a UNESCO world heritage site located in Karnataka.
A flight, train, and a bus later, Arora was amidst the ‘magical’ ruins to capture it on his lens.
Six months later, the young lensman is sharing these images with the world through an exhibition titled ‘Rediscovering Hampi’ at a buzzing cultural hub — Bikaner House in Delhi.
Hampi in frames
Surrounded by images of deft stone carvings, relief sculptures, monoliths, murals, and panoramic views of the complex, the viewers revel in the architectural marvel of the capital of the erstwhile Vijayanagara empire.
“It was truly magical. As there were not many people around, it was just me and the history. I felt enamoured by the beauty and resilience of the structure and wanted to share it with people. People have heard about Hampi but how many of us have seen it? I felt compelled to tell its story through my images,” says the photographer, who had partly curated the VIP lounge at India Art Fair this year and also showcased some of his works.
The show has been curated by eminent art critic Uma Nair, who has divided it into various themes like murals, Gods and Goddesses, and the sunset.
“The murals in the temples have their own charm. The Gods and Goddesses are like a galaxy of stars. The sunset on the sandstone was about romance and reverie but my two favourites are man and nature, and the elephant in the temple. I chose images that would educate, delight, and add reverence to the show. I want people to walk away with images on their phones thinking of India’s great past,” explains Nair.
The curator is also planning to give talks to students from the Delhi College of Arts and School of Planning and Architecture and a set of young professionals who have collectively created a community called PhotoCommune.
Behind the lens
In the premises of Virupaksha Temple, Arora came across the playful elephant Lakshmi. The cheerful elephant kept looking at Arora from behind the pillars as if posing for him. Arora couldn’t miss these moments and captured them. Two images of Lakshmi grace the entrance of the gallery to welcome the visitors.
Arora, 45, is a self-taught photographer who has been taking pictures for a long time but started his professional innings only in 2020.
He is particularly interested in heritage and culture and has documented each and every heritage structure in Delhi. These repositories of culture are battling apathy, bad upkeep, and the vagaries of nature, and therefore need to be chronicled for future generations, according to Arora.
A spot like Hampi that is immersed in history was understandably on Arora’s list for a very long time. Nothing could have been better than Hampi for Arora’s debut show. Given a beautiful site, heritage photography appears to be easy but it has its share of challenges.
“First of all, reaching these sites is a challenge and of course, you have a beautiful site but how to present it is crucial. I took a flight to Bombay, from there I took a train to Hubli. In Hubli, I got on a bus to reach Hampi. Every site has its mood but how do you want to capture it? What kind of light will best suit the story you want to tell plays an important role,” says the photographer, who camped at Hampi for 10 days.
Etched in time
Nair reveals that Arora walked miles and spent hours studying and capturing facets that embraced the depth and beauty of its history.
“There is gravitas in looking at the images of stone carvings going back to medieval ages. There is so much strength in looking at carved Gods and Goddesses created by sculptors of yore. As a curator, I hunted for the richness of composition and the beauty of the human figure. Antiquity is a chapter that has many shades. I am glad he presented it.”
Situated on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, Hampi functioned as the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. It was founded by two brothers Harihara and Bukka in the 14th century. It flourished as a trading hub. Everything from diamonds to horses was traded there.
As various rulers of the Vijayanagara kingdom, particularly Krishnadevaraya, promoted art and culture vigorously, Hampi emerged as an artistic centre.
A rich landscape
The massive landscape is dotted with temple ruins, market streets, imposing sculptures, royal pavilions, and a striking carved stone chariot.
The historical buildings follow the Dravidian style of architecture. Their walls and pillars are replete with murals and carvings that draw from the Hindu culture such as the Ramayana, Hindu Gods and Goddesses such as Shiva and Parvati, warriors, chariots, mythical figures, and many more.
There are mandapas, intricately carved pillars, and a fascinating royal enclosure called Mahanavami Dibba, which was used by the royals for festivals like Navaratri.
Nair emphasises, “The idea of unravelling Indian history is an act of devotion and deep reverence. Born of bhakti are these sculptures, architecture, and murals. It takes me back to the days of nirgun poets. Everything that is spiritual is about awakening and evolving. This pandemic taught us life is short. We must study the past to understand the present.”
(The show “Rediscovering Hampi”, presented by Masha Art, is on at Bikaner House in Delhi till September 22)
(Shailaja Tripathi has traversed the world of print, electronic, and digital media for more than two decades. In all these years, she has focused on art and culture through her writings. Based in Bengaluru, India, she remains committed to the idea of bridging the gap between art and people)