Abandoned India, a photographic exhibition by Melbourne photographer Kip Scott
Once upon a time, a group of rich merchants and landowners began to build havelis, or mansions, in the desert region of Shekawati, Rajasthan. Each wanted to own the grandest haveli, and their competition led their craftsmen to create houses of astonishing beauty.
Today 90 per cent of these “painted mansions”, which span from around the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s, have been abandoned, a consequence of the rise of big cities like Bombay and Calcutta.
However, their abandoned state is what attracted young Footscray photographer Kip Scott, inspiring him to photograph the grand homes and use a selection for his first solo exhibition, Abandoned India.
“I wanted to capture something that I feel no one’s captured before,” Scott says.
Scott travelled in India several times as a child, but this was his first trip off the tourist trail. His is also the first artistic attempt to capture the abandoned mansions of Shekawati, and he sees it as his own take on the site: “You do it with light and colour and finding the right moment.”
Abandonment is a recurring theme in Scott’s work. “What I like about this is that it has a history…people have been there, but they’re not here at this moment,” he says. “It’s the passing of time. You pick up a sense of history, you feel something there.”
And indeed, to look at – and into – the images of these abandoned mansions is to look at the strangely exuberant resilience of art and its worlds; Scott did indeed find the “right moment”.
A corridor of a long-disused ballroom is still alive with powder greens and blues, flowery murals writhing along the walls. Lush pink and green flower motifs peek down from the shadowy pillars of a half-ruined haveli, although mirrors have been prised from their curlicued arches.
In another image of the ballroom you can see paintings of the colonial British in their finery marching high along one wall. And neglect hasn’t dimmed the mystery of an almost obnoxiously bright fresco of a short-haired, modern-looking Krishna leaning suggestively over a seated Radha, who is holding, of all things, a brown-covered book, as if she had been absorbed in a good story before her lover’s intrusion.
The unknown craftsmen of Shekawati, it would seem, weren’t just pandering to a desire for display, but weaving together both the realities and the mythologies of their now-vanished world to create something new.
Scott has also captured ordinary people, caught in an ordinary moment – a tailor staring over his sewing machine, a desert nomad with a spotted veil dangling over her eyes, men lounging on the steps of a train – as well as the props of everyday life; an Ambassador car, the faded pink Mahansar Railway Station, a rickshaw bright with streamers. They are all as evocative of their worlds as the images of the abandoned havelis.
Scott muses that it would be difficult to capture something as unusual as the Shekawati mansions in Australia. “If I asked a person about an abandoned building in Australia they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to trip over and break your leg’.”
It’s an ironic opportunity of course – the mansions of Shekawati were actively funded into being as status symbols but are now neglected and crumbling because nobody finds them profitable in modern India; Scott’s work was almost certainly only possible because of this.
The question is, how long can they survive off their own abandoned splendour?