For a month or two every winter for the past five years, Eastern Kentucky University geography professor Dr. David Zurick could be found photographing the majestic painted towns of Shekhawati in rural Rajasthan, India. Those photographs became the content of his newest book, “A Fantastic State of Ruin: The Painted Towns of Rajasthan.”
Zurick will give a presentation on the book as part of the University’s Chautauqua Lecture Series on Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Held in O’Donnell Hall in the Whitlock Building, the lecture is free and open to the public. His Chautauqua installment will “stitch together themes of landscape, visual culture and art photography and apply them to a fascinating and little-known place in the world.” The presentation will function as the professor’s swan song, preceding his retirement after the Fall 2018 semester.
The EKU Foundation professor and author has studied and photographed the Himalayan region extensively during his 31-year career at EKU, and stumbled on to the project on one of his expeditions. He was traveling to the region of Shekhawati as the last hurrah of a long-term photographic study South Asia when he discovered the painted town. “The beauty of these architectural ruins blew my mind, and I began looking into the history and geography of the region.”
Zurick learned that centuries ago, wealthy merchants on the trade caravans that crossed the Thar Desert paid for the construction of the houses and commissioned artists to paint murals on them depicting local life and society. When those merchants left for larger Indian cities, the once opulent buildings fell into disrepair. Captivated by the ruins, Zurick “came to see in this place a lovely world of extraordinary but fragile beauty, which is disappearing before our eyes, and I thought it was important for me to create a visual record of it.”
The book contains 126 photographs taken by Zurick and is divided into four sections: The Desert, The Towns, The Inhabitants, and The Painted Walls. It also includes an introduction written by Abha Narain Lambah, India’s foremost conservation architect, an introductory essay for each section written by Zurick and an afterword written by Paris-based master restorer Cecile Charpentier.
Zurick has earned acclaim for his other works as well. In 2017, he earned the Nautilus Silver Award for his book “Morning Coffee at the Goldfish Pond: Seeing a World in the Garden.” The autobiographical work was one of three awarded in the lyrical prose category, and one of 209 recognized across 43 categories. Previous Silver Award winners include Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama and Barbara Kingsolver.
Over the course of his career, Zurick has relished the travel opportunities it has afforded him. “We live on a planet filled with fascinating places where ordinary people live extraordinary lives, and I am always grateful for the chance to deepen my exploration of the world and my place in it,” he reflected. “I learn from all my adventures, including this one, about the simple truths of nature, beauty and our shared humanity.”
Nature and humanity, Zurick believes, are connected. “The landscape is a kind of mirror that reflects who we are as individuals and as members of a society,” he said. He often ponders the question of just what the mirror of our landscape reflects about us. “I believe our children and grandchildren will know us well by the state of the world we pass along to them.”
In addition to his more recent accolades, Zurick earned the 2006 National Outdoor Book Award for “Southern Crossings: Where Geography and Photography Meet.” His other works include “Land of Pure Vision,” “My Kind of Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World,” “Illustrated Atlas of the Himalaya,” “The Himalaya: Encounters with the Roof of the World” and “Errant Journeys: Adventure Travel in a Modern Age.”
Zurick’s Chautauqua lecture is sponsored by the Department of Geosciences, Department of Art and Design, Office of Alumni Relations and the Honors Program.