A typical rural Punjabi house photographed by Rajesh Vora in his new coffee table book Everyday Monuments might have thick marble walls, a red tiled roof, curved windows, a clothesline or a satellite dish, and a massive, handmade sculpture affixed to its water tank. The rooftops of Punjab are a canvas for NRI wealth and local aspiration.

Planes, soccer balls, pressure cookers, sewing machines, Bhagat Singh training his rifle, chickens, teacups, and India cups, among other objects, are represented in painted cement and rebar. The sculptures seem to represent a range of aspirations and points of pride. Vora’s photographs capture a definitive folk art style as well as a crystallized period of Indian immigration and return which might never been seen again.

A handmade sculpture of a soccer player potentially representing FC Barcelona, on a rooftop in rural Punjab. Photographed by Rajesh Vora.

All photos by Rajesh Vora

 

These rooftop sculptures, photographed by Vora across more than 150 villages in the Doaba region of Punjab in India, did not, at the time the project began in 2014, exist on any map. Google Maps had not yet fully surveyed the region. Vora and his taxi driver would have to ask around and hope to be pointed in the right direction. But a day of traveling could still yield no sculptures. While others might see them discovering dozens. After a while, Vora and his driver began to develop a sixth sense for where the sculptures lived, and greater knowledge specifically of where many NRIs had built their homes.

Many of the rooftop sculptures would feature planes or ships, or else landmarks likes the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes they were slightly bizarre representations of other countries like a kangaroo, in one case.

“The sculpture tells a story: a person has moved from India to another part of the world. It’s more of an adventurous thing or to honor [their] livelihood. Then it comes to professions. If someone’s father was in the army, they’d put an army man. If someone worked as a chef, they’d put a pressure cooker,” Vora told Kajal. “There’s nowhere else in India where this kind of architecture happens.”

The sculptures, Vora says, signal class and standing. A person’s status in the village goes up when a sculpture gets commissioned and erected on their water tower. Their house is also physically taller with the sculpture, making it stand out more and making the surrounding village more recognizable.

A handmade sculpture of a framer in a tractor and a woman on a rooftop in rural Punjab, photographed by Rajesh VoraA handmade sculpture of a military man looking out of a tank on a rooftop in rural Punjab, photographed by Rajesh Vora

Adornment and self-expression are as tied to the function of the artwork as are the aspirations they represent. The artwork is also very literal – there is no abstract interpretation to be made on a ten foot tractor atop someone’s roof, it is clearly a celebration of Punjab’s farmers. They are designed in a folksy kitsch style with straight lines, simple color palettes, and cartoonish proportion.

“They don’t miss what they want to do. They’re very loud about it,” Vora said.

Despite the simplicity of the work, there’s no denying the uniqueness of each piece. According to Vora, the sculpture artists work within their own 30-40 km regions. Once you leave a district, the style, form, and colors of the pieces change. Each house, as a result, retains a unique sculpture.

A handmade sculpture of a chicken on a rooftop in rural Punjab, photographed by Rajesh Vora A handmade sculpture of a bus on a rooftop in rural Punjab

Vora’s favorite sculptures were the endless planes he found.

“They start with the jet fighter planes, because most of the Punjabis were in the air force – the small, tiny planes. And they go up to 747s. The whole history of the airplane industry can be seen on the Punjab skyline, in a way. You’ll find [airlines] that don’t exist anymore, American Airlines and Pan Am, they’re still on the skyline. They live on,” he said.

A handmade sculpture of a commercial plane on a rooftop in rural Punjab, photographed by Rajesh VoraA sculpture of ten men playing tug of war on a rooftop in rural Punjab, photographed by Rajesh Vora.

Vora’s photographs were shown in the Surrey Art Gallery in Surrey, Canada, where a large Punjabi population lives. Many of the attendees, he says, were nostalgic for their homes in Punjab but many were also surprised that these rooftop sculptures existed there now.

“What I have documented will remain a testimony of the period. Maybe this art is dying now, because the new generation, I don’t think they have as much empathy or sympathy for the homeland so they won’t come back again to build a house and put up a plane,” he said. “This era, it started in the 1970s to 2020, 50 years, is a very important period to be documented. If me or someone else hadn’t documented this thing, no one would have known. Maybe after 20, 30 years it will have just disappeared because [the sculptures are] difficult to maintain.”

Everyday Monuments provides an architectural and sculptural record of rural Punjab. Even the the red and white checkerboard pattern, for example, that appears on many of the houses is borrowed from the design of local airports, Vora says.

The photographs show people as they lived over a key period in Indian and Punjabi recent history, from their clotheslines down to their artwork.They show the monuments people built to hold their dreams and represent their achievements.