A 30,000 sq km open-air art gallery, for-gotten with the passage of time, is now being rediscovered as an upcoming tourist destination. The place: Shekawati in the semi-arid, northwest region of India’s Rajasthan.
Unlike in the state’s capital city of Jaipur, where the houses are painted a plain pink, here in Shekawati, entire townships are decorated with murals. Both within and on the outside of homes and temples, murals interpret the various stories in Indian mythology. Or the wall paintings simply record events that happened over the years.
The region called Shekawati comprises the districts of Jhunjhunu, Churu, and Sikar in northwest Rajasthan. Here, at little whistle-stop hamlets with romantic names like Mukundgarh, Nawalgarh, Fatehpur, Ramgarh, Mandawa, Bissau, Mahansar, and Dundlod, lies a concentration of fresco paintings in grand old edifices, called havelis, now virtually deserted.
Exquisitely designed, these havelis reflect the lifestyle of a 100 to 150 years’ span around the mid 19th and 20th centuries, according to Chinmay Mehta, professor and dean, faculty of fine arts, University of Rajasthan. “These havelis were an extension of the royal culture of the rich in this region. The business community at that time had a lot of wealth and they used to compete with each other by constructing the best haveli with the best paintings.”
Today, these towns have a battered look, with the plaster almost falling off the building walls in places. Camel carts laden with goods vie with overcrowded buses for right of way through narrow, meandering streets crowded with goats, dogs, and children. In the side alleys, ladies in bright red saris put out equally red chilies to dry, while the men-folk relax on rope-strung wooden beds.
But only a few decades ago Shekawati was a rich and prosperous area. Shekawati’s fortunes date back to the time when trade flourished in this region, situated as it was on the caravan trade route carrying cash crops like spices, indigo, and opium between the rest of India and Central Asia. But later when the British took over and developed ports along the country’s coastline, the trade routes altered. And wealthy Shekawati lost out. Then the Marwari traders whose names now read like a Who’s Who in Indian industry—the Morarkas, Poddars, Birlas, Ruias, Shinganias, Kedias, etc., moved out to other parts of the country. The region was left to decay and soon began to resemble a cluster of ghost towns.
That is, until now, when some concerned natives realized that they were the unwitting guardians of a treasure trove rich of art and culture. Yet they are unable to leave their industrial empires, power, and wealth, to return to take care of their past. But some of them are coming together to take some kind of action so that whatever is left of this heritage does not disappear completely. For example, the Morarka Foundation and the Rajasthan Government’s Tourism Department now organize a festival in this region every February. Besides promoting local customs, dance, and games, the festival also encourages craftsmen of the area to display their wood and metal handicrafts.
“We also hold a best-maintained haveli contest,” said Kamal Morarka, former member of parliament, and a well-known industrialist, who has been actively involved in the festival and the conservation. “The idea is to bring about an awareness amongst the local people of the rich heritage and culture they have inherited. The climate during February is ideal for tourists to visit this area.”
A definite, if small, beginning has been made to create awareness of the area. But in the meanwhile, the barren stately homes continue to decay. Some of the frescoes have been whitewashed to make way for advertisements of slippers and cigarettes, and garish cinema and election posters. Haphazard electrical wiring, plumbing, and smoke from cooking stoves, too, have taken their toll. But the saddest part is that exquisitely carved wooden doors and windows have been dismantled and sold as scrap by ignorant caretakers. These later resurface as antique pieces that are sold to foreigners at exorbitant prices, said Mehta. “In the meanwhile, some of these historic mansions have been destroyed by ‘modern’ newcomers to make way for constructions of a monstrous kind.”
Though the number of havelis in existence is a matter of speculation, Rajasthan Tourism’s director Shailendra Agarwal estimates that there are at least 5,000 havelis in the region. “We are encouraging people to open up their locked havelis to tourists. The government is also deputing personnel from the archaeological department to preserve, maintain, and conserve the paintings, as also to train the local populace to take care of them and their havelis.
“Shekawati is an open-air art gallery,” said Agarwal. “The poor citizens had maybe two or three paintings in their homes, while the rich would have had the walls covered from end to end with these murals.”
Some dismiss these paintings as kitsch art. But most hold them to be valuable works that have withstood the ravages of time. Whatever the opinion, the paintings speak volumes about the history of the region, of the life and times of the people here, their religion, and their aspirations.
In the days of yore, the artist was often summoned from Jaipur. The choice of subjects ranged from epic texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to historical events, to geometric patterns and floral, to the abstract. Then there were scenes depicting what the rich merchants saw during their travels to distant lands in search of trade. These scenes consisted of new technologies like the telephone and gramophone, cars, trains, and even airplanes! Others depicted British officers in their sola topees and memsahibs trotting around with their parasols. In this manner, the merchants told their womenfolk confined at home what the outside world looked like, a world which they probably would never see.
One such mansion, though now converted to a school, on which much restoration work has been done is the Poddar haveli at Nawalgarh. Built in 1902, this mansion has 250 paintings in all. Restoration work, under the supervision of specialists in the field, has been going on since 1992. “The old system of colors made from stones has been adopted so as to give uniformity and long life,” said the school principal B.L. Gaur.
The frontage of the ancestral home measuring 110 feet in length and 25 feet in height is completely covered with frescoes. Its balcony at the top has very attractive pillars and arches. All the four walls of the two courtyards and the main sitting room are replete with frescoes. Covering a wide variety of subjects, they depict not only Indian gods and goddesses, or scenes from Indian mythology, but also the cultural and social life of rural India prevalent at that time: fairs and festivals like Holi and Makar Sankranti. The whole building is fully lit from inside and outside and the frescoes glitter, giving the impression of stone studded paintings.
An interesting fresco in the Poddar haveli is that of a train with different coaches for various classes of people. Similarly, there are paintings of airplanes and men smoking cigars—all reminiscent of a bygone era.
Another noteworthy stately home in Nawalgarh is the Morarka haveli. Renovation work was in progress at the time of our visit, and artists were busy bringing to life the faded paintings.
At Nawalgarh we also saw a wall painted with antique motor vehicles, mainly driven by the British at that time. A marriage procession is the highlight of another good mansion. The couple, just married, walk out in the rain. The bride is tied to the groom’s scarf and her face is entirely covered with a veil.
In the forecourt of a beautiful haveli in Mandawa, an elephant painted on the side of a wall is repeated on the side of a little flight of stairs. Above them, foreigners and merchants discuss business matters in armchairs.
At Mahansar, one of the abodes had battle scenes highlighted in silver and gold colors.
In a temple in Jhunjhunu, on a ceiling heavily decorated in red and blue, Hindu god Krishna and his gopis dance. Another temple has Krishna playing with the gopis. These are some of the favorite themes throughout the region.
An ancient art, mural painting in India dates back several centuries. Different regions have their distinctive styles, but the profusion and skill at Shekawati remain unmatched. Here, the fresco painters were called chiteras and belonged to the caste of kumhars or potters. They were also masons, since they performed the functions of painting as well as building.
Initially, like in the rest of Rajasthan, only vegetable or natural pigments were used like kajal (lamp black) for black, safeda (lime) for white, neel (indigo) for blue, harbabhata (terra verte) for green, geru (red stone powder) for red, kesar (saffron) for orange and pevri (yellow clay) for yellow ochre.
Till the last decade of the 19th century, when chemical pigments came to India, the Rajasthani chiteras kept to the fresco buono technique. “In this method,” explained B.L. Swarnkar, an artist who was involved with the restoration work, “only a part of the wall was plastered at a time with three layers of very fine clay. The last layer consisted of fine and filtered lime dust, mixed in limewater and subsequently beaten into plaster. It did not fade for almost as long as the building lasted, and while still damp, the design was drawn and painted on it. This required complete coordination between the painter and the mason.”
Subsequently, synthetic dyes from Germany and England facilitated intricate work as they were meant to be painted on dry plaster and the chitera did not have to paint hurriedly before the plaster dried up.
Surely, painting buildings so minutely could take years, if not months. “Possibly, this could have been a way of keeping the villagers occupied. Some sort of drought relief work,” mused Gaur.
The Department of Archaeology and Museums of Rajasthan has an important unit for chemical conservation of artifacts and architecture. Since 1960 this unit, headed by an archaeologist-chemist, has been assigned the work of chemical conservation of wall paintings in monuments. Training and assistance in this field have been provided by central institutions like the Archaeological Survey of India and the National Museum. But further development of facilities is required to meet the increasing demand for the preservation of the rich collection of wall paintings in Rajasthan. “It is necessary to document and prepare reports on the state of the mural paintings. Suggestions should be made for their protection and conservation on a priority basis,” said a local resident.
The fact that the area attracts tourists, both Indian and foreign, shows that conservation can turn Shekawati into a viable business proportion. Last year, around 30,000 overseas tourists visited the region. But at the same time, basic infrastructure needs to be developed in the form of adequate transportation and communication facilities. The drive from the airport at Jaipur or especially Delhi is not only tiring but also trying. If an airstrip could be built somewhere in this region with commercial flights, many more tourists would pour in. Said Morarka: “What is now the Golden Triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur, could well become the Golden Square with the inclusion of Shekawati as a must in the tourist’s itinerary.”