Time travel in Shekhawati: A painted doorway to the past

As the crowds swarm to the Jaipur LitFest this weekend, consider a quick getaway to Shekhawati where plump mustachioed Englishmen jostle with princelings and gods in painted memories of yore..

Charukesi January 16, 2012 15:34:45 IST
Time travel in Shekhawati: A painted doorway to the past

While the world and his uncle are going crazy at the Jaipur LitFest, I suggest you take a quick getaway when the going gets too rough and you have literature pouring out of your ears. The perfect place to recover from JLF: Shekhawati. The garden of the Shekhas.

Less than 200 kilometers from Jaipur lies the region of Rajasthan best known for its exquisitely painted havelis. The fresco work of the Shekhawati area is fascinating, colourful — some of it even bizarre.

The havelis themselves are every bit as spectacular as their frescoes, with their graceful archways, ornate windows and large courtyards with a separate space for the womenfolk. Built mostly in the nineteenth century, they are the property of the local business-trading community, the Marwaris.

Time travel in Shekhawati A painted doorway to the past

Mandawa in Rajasthan's Shekhawati has many havelis that are in a state of ruin. Some frescoes have survived for over a century, but, where the original paint has peeled, there is now a coat of fresh whitewash. Ahron de Leeuw/Flickr

These mansions represent their commitment to give back to the community they had left in search of money and fame in the larger cities of Delhi and Calcutta. The larger the haveli and the more elaborate the frescoes,the higher the prestige of the owner, claims our guide Raju. We start our fresco tour at the Ishwardas Modi haveli in Jhunjhunu which has 365 windows. There are some that have over a thousand.

At the Saraf haveli in Jhunjhunu, two images vie for attention. The first is of the Wright brothers making their first trip up into the air, looking very tiny and unsure in their brown European coats. The caption under it says udne wala jahaj (flying machine). And right next to it is another of a prince on horseback in flowing pink silk robes, attacking a tiger with a spear. Elsewhere is a car of peculiar shape and unknown make and a woman beside a gramophone.

Other havelis boast of images of various men in bowler hats, some twirling their bushy moustaches, others content to just be clean-shaven Englishmen. And scattered amidst these colonial sights are innumerable Indian gods and goddesses. Krishna, the lover-thief-cowboy-god, is especially popular since he lends himself amicably to very many representations. Here he is sitting atop a tree with a herd of cows gazing up in adoration; and there, frolicking with the gopis, inebriated by the sound of his music, dancing the eternal dance of life (or is it lust?).

The weird cacophony of images symbolised the changing times experienced by its owners. My guess is that the owners and the artists themselves started safe with familiar, even essential images of gods, goddesses and other mythological themes. But as the nouveau riche travelled to England and other parts of Europe, they brought back with them images of snow-covered mountains and gondolas and motor cars, all of which were faithfully translated on to the walls and ceilings of their homes by craftsmen rich in artistry and richer in imagination. These cars and airplanes were painted by men who had never seen one in their lives.

Closer home, it was imperative for these men with a sharp business sense to please the Englishmen whose approving nod held the key to their success. So on came the images of bowler-hatted and brown-suited Englishmen, and ladies in their stiff evening gowns and delicate parasols.

The technique used in painting these frescoes is the Italian method of fresco-buono dating back to the 14th century. The artists etched the design on the walls with sharp sticks and painted on the wet plaster using natural vegetable and plant dyes mixed in lime water. The colours set naturally along with the wet plaster, thus sealing the mural from the harsh weather conditions. A pity there was no method discovered then — or even now —  of protecting them from damage caused by human hand or, equally, neglect.

At neighboring Mandawa, for instance, many havelis are in a state of ruin. Seeing our disappointment, Raju takes us to the Jhunjhunwala haveli where we enter the mansion through a low, narrow gate. This used to be the entry for the servants (who entered with bowed head?) while the owner himself strode in regally through the large gate. The caretaker’s eyes take on a gleam at the sight of new visitors. We agree on fifty rupees and enter the “gold room”. And what a royal treat for fifty rupees!

Records say that over three kilos of gold foil has gone into the murals adorning the walls and ceilings of this room alone – although how much of it survives is anyone’s guess. We spend over half an hour staring at the frescoes, made all the more beautiful by the faint sunlight streaming in through the coloured cut-glass set on all windows and above the doors. I even manage to shut out the wheedling voice of the caretaker who is now trying to sell us picture postcards.

I am still feeling overwhelmed as we walk out of that room, and in that mood, cross the main doors of the haveli to enter what must have been the main courtyard once upon a time — and wham! I'm plunged back to terra firma again. Four different families live there now, the cooking smells and smoke of each fighting for space to settle on the same walls. Clothes hang out of the once-ornate windows. Some of the frescoes have survived for over a century. But where the original paint has peeled beyond repair, there is a coat of fresh whitewash over the walls — turning, in one stroke of the brush, a century of art into a blank wall.

So hurry to Shekhawati. Go now while the art is still alive and the painted walls are still waging their colourful battles with time.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance writer and travel blogger from Bangalore. When she is not actually travelling, she is busy planning her next trip. Read more about her at her website.


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