Vishrambaug Wada

Where maintenance is forever at Vishram
Laxmi Road, Budhwaar Peth, Pune
Entry: Rs 3 (and a pound of heart burn)
[Built 1803-09; 10 years before the British conquered Pune]

Pune. A history of roughly 400 years. A culture that has absorbed from the fading Mughals, been in loyal servitude of the Maratha rulers, and weathered the peak of British imperialism… but I’m only précising a Wiki page and parroting accounts penned by historians. Stepping on to the other side of the threshold of Vishrambaug Wada, and looking up at the sky from the atrium threatens to erase much of all that background knowledge in an instant. My partner and I try to imprint a preliminary sketch of the sight that we have only seen in several pictures during our individual as well as joint research in preparation for the visit. Our fascination, competitive. Our purposes, different. His was to add a photo document to his portfolio. Mine, another capsule from the city to assign to my memory. Perhaps through the carvings etched in another time, or the wood itself, weathered through the ages.

Asking the guard at the doorway for a sangrahalay does not yield much of a response – no directions nor recognition of the word itself; he does point towards a signboard about 15 feet high. The entrance has two rooms on either side of the door, beyond which is the chowk, typical to old houses around the country. Vishrambaug’s identity, though, lies in the exteriors. Said to be the only surviving Peshwa wada, its meghadambari or curving pavilion at the front entrance is lavishly carved in cypress wood in the kalamdani style. The others were destroyed by fire in the 19th century for reasons I’m yet to discover. This one too was victim of some minor flames, but was saved and restored in time. The restored motifs are believed to be more akin to the neo-Gothic mould – one finds depictions of a monkey and dragon instead of just the erstwhile intricate flowers and creepers.

The edifice has played several roles, like the recycled others of its grandeur. After the then Peshwa was exiled, Vishrambaug Wada assumed the part of Pune’s first British sponsored educational institution – the Poona Sanskrit College and went onto become the Deccan College. The Pune Municipal Corporation finally deigned to set up a tacky ‘heritage display’ within the premises, on the first floor. The last development is rather recent.

The rooms at the entrance are a handicrafts outlet run by an NGO for women’s empowerment. The rest of the ground floor is some kind of a printing press, devoid of charm or any sense of even monotonous regularity or neatness. A feature that held both our attention is the spiral wrought iron staircase that leads up to the second floor and meets a jammed closed window, overgrown with weed.
This is where you will begin to suffer the full throttle of my lament.

When I mentioned the fires of the 19th century at the beginning of the write up, I’m sure a disdainful ‘why’ came to your mind, but the present state of Vishrambaug Wada hurt more on our visit recently. The efforts of the powers-that-be to suppress its splendour have borne copious fruit. We climbed up the stairs that led to the permanent display to be welcomed by a polite but fairly bored looking young lady at the ticket counter. Tickets paid for (PMC, I implore you to charge more and please justify the building’s history, if not what is left of it), my partner’s helmet left on the side, we walked on to behold bhwhat made both our jaws drop. We seemed to have disembarked onto another planet. The planet of a primary school local history project abandoned to dilapidate in layers of dust. The ante room of the heritage display at Vishrambaug Wada is created with wood planks from floor to ceiling, vainly camouflaged by lengths of black chart paper, textured with forks to give the feeling of old stone walls.

Yes, please laugh.

The displays conform to the primary school project imagery: low resolution photos blown up and labelled neatly on handwritten notes. Rudimentary hand drawn maps and sketches on more chart paper (yellows, pinks, greens and blues), again labelled in fountain ink, follow. The absurdity does not end there. Dark brown varnish covers ALL of the once-elegant wood carved angles, balustrades, pillars and beams of Vishrambaug Wada. To add to the beholder’s anguish, these cakey fixtures have obviously not been dusted in at least a few months. Now if it was a bachelor’s shack, the present state of affairs would have been acceptable. But we’re talking about a monument, however minor.

To illustrate the sense of the culture, they’ve spread moth-eaten double-bed mattresses and bolsters in the coves, with old style desks for company. These mattresses and bolsters have been wrapped in handloom sheets with cheap orange and brown floral prints. When you peep out into the the market surrounding Vishrambaug Wada, you see identical linen hanging from cabin shop displays. The studied neglect all around amalgamates to corner you into helpless disgust. Much like incestuous rape. Fucked by one’s own kith and kin.

The disrepair gets clearer when I tried to open one of the large low windows (that was me monkeying around) by unlatching the links at the top. Varnish has been so ruthlessly, thoughtlessly and in such haste pasted all over, that removing the links to cover the surface beneath did not occur to them. The pale yellow paint from a previous effort patiently peels away. Furthermore, the musicians’ jharukha in the front (the balcony that you admire from the outside sheltered by the pavilion arc) has been sealed off with the exception of one grilled door open so you can see where they sat. I saw a red plastic bucket and some length of wire eating more dust and rotting more merrily.

Apart from the shocking upkeep, the layout of the display too is quite confusing. You may lose your way! No directions (an elderly solo gentleman asked us how to get out) – somebody’s idea of showing the place to public. Yes, lock away what you can’t have cleaned every day and confuse the visitor to prevent other conceivable damage.

Such action is, (I’m willing to withdraw the opinion if anyone proves otherwise) representative of the attitude of the city’s denizens at large. I speak from not just my visits to the city, but also from observation in my six and a half months of residence in Pune. The city’s façade may portray a certain dispassion. Puneris take this maaz to the next level. They seem to revel in their blind adoration for the status quo; for mediocrity, for what they call balance and outsiders term laziness. Balance or laziness, they have little regard for their architectural legacy. Little wonder then, that their old buildings are either the colleges or left behind in debris and ashes. What remains, is their aggression towards preserving this blindness as if it is the answer to all questions of the universe and their narrow path to salvation.

This aggression manifests itself in many ways: verbal hostility comes first. Masochistic offense and unapologetic defence follow close behind – those are the only remaining elements in their anyway rusty armour.

My disgust though is for this obstinate protectiveness for the long gone. Of which remains only faded memories, guesswork and speculation. This mutual back-patting diplomacy discourages constructive criticism or novelty or both.

Pune’s attempts at the new seem like juvenile gun jumping. Unplanned in its layout, its civic infrastructure is its only saving grace. First it attracts throngs of techies and culture vultures, then it leaves them to forage. Its people endeavour twice as hard as say, a Bong to appear worldly wise. However, like an 11-year-old, Punekars live in the contentment of false, shallow promises without any grasp for posterity. Fancy malls, cafes and chains of bookstores do not a city’s characters make. Where is the human infrastructure to support the service experiences and details for which these brands have stood? Dishevel is ingrained, not studied or striven for in Pune.

My melancholy is for Vishrambaug Wada, but a latent sense of brotherhood between my city of birth (Baroda) and Pune absorbs me more. The former was a key province of the Bombay Presidency; the latter its monsoon capital. Sons of a mother, to use a cliché. The rooted Marathi culture. Cultural capitals of their respective states. Perhaps I should not claim the epithet for Baroda anymore. I have nothing to support it with. But Pune does. And yet its proximity to Bombay, its non-dry status, and heavy cosmopolitan student influx seem to give no momentum to its pace. They continue to start their day at 11:00 am, take their three-hour siesta break from 1:00 pm, return from work at 5:30 pm; their day still ends at 8:30 pm. 11:00 pm is late.

But I stray.

Vishrambaug Wada does not care for frowns – yours or mine. The intricately carved pavilion can eat the dust it is force fed each day. Its age can go live its reclusion in inattention. Its utilised spaces can be spat upon, iron trunks be dragged upon its flooring, and its general state of upkeep can leave as much to desire as it likes.

My reaction to this visit has built upon itself over a period of over a week. I was asked to build my writing upon this criticism even before we visited Vishrambaug Wada, but the dissatisfaction and despair is my own, and runs deep. In hindsight, both, my partner and my own motives for the visit sound not only pompous but a tad misplaced.

Questions surged.

What is the state government doing towards this end? Or the city’s municipal corporation. Is it not the responsibility, at least in part, of the keepers of official administration? Where is this city’s own pride of inheritance, however meagre?

I’m not yet entirely willing to write off Pune. मला हि नगरी आवडली, पण लग्गेच नाही . तरी एक दिवशी ती नक्कीच माझी होइल , तश्य भावनेची मी वाट बघते ...*

*SPECIAL THANKS TO Aditya Kulkarni & Ankur Hande for all the editing help with the last two lines in Marathi :)

1 comment:

Ace said...

loved ur writing pal.. and glad to contribute to it ;)

Also thnx fr sharing....

truely .. badhu mast !!! :p