Above and Below

India’s Subterranean Stepwells rise at the Fowler Museum

A stepwell with water at the bottom. (Victoria Lautman)

India’s Subterranean Stepwells: Photographs by Victoria Lautman
University of California, Los Angeles
308 Charles E. Young Drive
Los Angeles

Photo of zigzagging staircases, some covered in moss

The levels of water are intended to fluctuate throughout the year. (Victoria Lautman)

In a show at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, Chicago-based arts journalist Victoria Lautman explores the hidden beauty of an elaborate building type originating in India: the stepwell. Built throughout the subcontinent’s warm, dry regions for the past 1,500 years, stepwells allowed communities to store water from monsoonal rains. These monumental stormwater management systems were built in both Muslim and Hindu architectural styles and served as sites of worship and gathering.

Lautman has visited more than 200 stepwells over the past 30 years in an effort to document their importance and ensure their survival. Organized by Joanna Barrkman, senior curator of Southeast Asian and Pacific arts, the exhibition includes 48 photographs taken by Lautman with a point-and-shoot camera, and is arranged in clusters that focus on specific architectural details. Further images, along with GPS coordinates for each stepwell, are included in Lautman’s 2017 book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India.

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