Subject: Old Well
Place: Coorg, Karnataka
Camera: Yashica Mat 124 G
Film: Ilford HP5 Plus
Water and wells have played intricate roles in the social history of India from its inception. As one of the pancha bhutas, water is a critical element for the very functioning of life. Cities and villages were located close to rivers and other water bodies to facilitate the smooth running of daily life.
Individual wells were not the norm in traditional Indian societies until much later in its history. Communal wells were commonplace with a well for each community. Water was seen as both essential and sacred. Its use was always carefully calibrated, never leaning towards profligacy or waste.
A full well meant a gift from nature. It also meant a good agricultural season because wells would brim only in the monsoon. A full well was also an indicator of abundance both social and individual. With social mobility and prosperity certain members began to break away from the group to have individual homes with their own wells. Though this was a mark of privilege for some water was still treated with reverence and never taken for granted. Our ancestors knew how critical water was to all life.
With urbanization came a new perception of water as a utility, a commodity for sale and unregulated consumption. The growth of large Indian cities required water in enormous quantities. Poor infrastructure and the absence of meaningful regulations began to ensure its wastage and rapid depletion. One sees more polluted water bodies than clear running streams in most parts of the country today. In this context an old disused well, as seen in this picture, is a telling metaphor of water’s decline in stature from a symbol of abundance and privilege that it once stood for to a commonplace commodity with little value other than the quotidian and practical. We can only wish that this will change and we give water its due place in the great scheme of things, indispensable to life.