MESMERIZING SHEKHAWATI


CONTRIBUTED BY URVASHI SRIVASTAVA

‘Mesmerizing Shekhawati’ is the only way that I can define this part of Rajasthan. I have visited several parts of the state, seen many grand forts, magnificent palaces, intricately carved temples but nothing comparable to the painted buildings of Shekhawati. The heritage of Shekhawati is not about grandness nor is it just about sheer opulence. It is a story of the ordinary people of Shekhawati and that is what makes it so special. It tells the tales of the enterprising Marwari merchants of the region, whose meteoric rise and enormous wealth along with the artistic talent of the itinerant painters in the region and later with the ingenious skills of the locals who graduated to become master painters, bestowed the region with an artistic wealth not to be seen anywhere in the world. Hope you enjoy reading this travelogue as much as I enjoyed writing it, a short piece that I had written almost 11 years ago when I first visited Shekhawati and became enamored by its charm for life.

Nestled in the dusty and semi desert part of Rajasthan is a group of towns that constitute the enchanting and mesmerizing colourful region of Shekhawati, the much-acclaimed open-air art gallery of Rajasthan. Shekhawati meaning the ‘the land of Shekha’s clan’ derives its name from Rao Shekha (1433 A.D.-1488 A.D.) My first encounter with this part of the world began with some images that I had seen in the tourism literature and description of its frescoed havelis. For quite some time the images kept lingering on in my mind until I got an opportunity to visit the place. A two-day trip was hastily planned, and we set out to explore the region.

Two days! I thought were enough to navigate through the area. We started from Jaipur for Fatehpur, our first halt. Enroute the journey we crossed several small towns and dhanis (villages). Belonging to one of the fertile parts of India I was complacent to see the greenery that went by. All seemed so familiar. Then slowly the green started to disappear and the yellow sand became more pronounced. I was told the Dunes had arrived!

I was slightly getting uneasy trying to figure out where all the greenery had disappeared. I had never seen so much barren land with mounds of sand that resembled the hump of a camel. Finally after crossing a few ranges of the Aravallis we were in the dusty hinterland of Rajasthan. At first the small little town of Fatehpur seemed quite normal and I wondered where all the colour of Shekhawati was? As our car moved through the narrow and dirty lanes of the town I came in sight of the first painted haveli! Oh my goodness . . .my mouth was wide open as I got down from the car still staring at the haveli in front of me, hardly bothering to notice the honking of the buses and jeeps around me .

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Richly painted façade of a haveli in Fatehpur and modern day clutter in the foreground

I entered the haveli quite hesitatingly not knowing what to ask? But soon I realised that the occupants were comfortable with visitors coming to see their havelis. To my utter surprise there was no inch of space that was not painted over. There were elephants with royal riders on their back, marching camels and horses, attractive dames in their fine attire, gods and goddesses, kings, queens and nobles, characters from mythological themes, local legends, hunting and wrestling scenes, glimpses of everyday life the list was endless. New motifs on account of the British influence like trains, cars, balloons, telephones, gramophones, English men in hunting attires, and portraits of haveli owners primly dressed could be seen painted on the walls. Impressions of interesting hybrids born as a result of the mingling of the traditional Indian painting with the naturalism of Western painting, oleographs, lithographs and photographs was also visible. Every bit of the surface of the havelis was filled with beautiful geometrical and floral patterns and borders. Bright red, maroon, green, indigo, black and white dazzled my eyes. I was stunned to see the brilliance of the colours that shone like thousands of studded rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls. The harsh climatic variations in the region had not marred the brilliance of the colours instead had lent a rich patina to the frescoes making them eternal.

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Exquisite fresco work bears testimony to a culturally rich lifestyle

Very soon we were all running through the streets of Fatehpur like a bunch of honeybees hastily trying to gather as much nectar as they could. I was dumbstruck! I wanted to see more and more and more. Every time I saw a painted haveli or even the slightest glimpse of colour I madly ran towards it. My husband had his finger firm on the trigger of the camera to capture as many images he could. The mid day sun shinning brightly over us and the intense heat hardly deterred us from moving forward. From Fatehpur we proceeded for Ramgarh, my eyes were still dazzled by the beauty of the colourful frescoes.

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Interior of haveli at Fatehpur

Ramgarh was a small little town not far from Fatehpur. Soon we were moving on its streets searching for a Chhatri famous for its extraordinary frescoes. With the help of the locals we reached the chhatri only to discover that it was locked. We were told there was a ticket to have a look at it. We happily paid the amount of some fifty rupees and entered the chhatri to be confronted with some thing that was unbelievable to be found in an ordinary rural setting such as this. I had to bite my finger to internalize that what was in front of our eyes was neither a fairy tale story nor a dream. The sofit of the central dome was profusely painted with characters from the Ramayana, the Mahabharta and the Krishna Lila. It was as if Krishna with his Gopies had come down to dance the eternal dance of love. Once again the reds, blues and greens sparkled in my eyes. It seemed to me that I had finally hit upon the jackpot at the end of the rainbow of my imagination. Every inch of the space displayed a mastery of the technique of fresco painting. I was in no minutes on the ground frantically clicking the camera to preserve for posterity the beauty that lay in front of us. Time had come to a standstill, neither of us wanted to move further but the thirst for more had us once again on the dusty streets of Shekhawati. From Ramgarh we proceeded for Churu.

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One of the finest chattries of the region at Ramgarh

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Scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata painted in rich colours

At Churu we took a break and decided to move out in the evening. As I was lying down I could hardly close my eyes. My eyes had seen so much colour that they hardly could contain and all this while I kept wondering what human hands were those that had painted such enchanting and enduring images. It all seemed to me a heavenly affair or an act of a magician. I could not come to terms with the fact that some anonymous people some hundred fifty years ago had created such splendor in the heart of an arid and dusty surrounding. After a small nap we set out to move through the town. We were told that there was nothing much to see in the town. After many inquiries hesitatingly our acquaintances admitted that there were some havelis but whether they had frescoes was still doubtful. We were informed that the town was a very backward place. Undeterred by what was told to us we set out to explore the town to quench our thirst!

After much waiting we got the glimpse of the fascinating treasure that the town was hiding in its lap. Once again one after the other the plethora of painted havelis started revealing their jewels to us. And not only havelis, at Churu we also got to see a small little Jain temple with its splendid gold frescoes based on mythological themes. We had almost missed the chance to enter the temple as it was locked and the pujari was nowhere to be found. But by God’s grace and as was destined we could finally get inside to see the painted wealth all over the place. This was by far one of the best examples of ‘God as King’. The whole temple was nothing less than a palace with brilliant gold work. Ah! What beauty we humans have created on this earth, I murmured to myself. For once I forgot the menace around us that has also been created by us. I said to myself blind are those eyes that cannot see this beauty in their laps. Laughing at their ignorance we moved to our next destination Bissau.

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Beautiful gold work on the ceiling of Shri Shantinathji Jain temple in Churu

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Gold painted ceiling western motifs dominate the decorations

By this time I was no longer a visitor, I had become an owner and a custodian of the fascinating wealth of the region. The feeling of awe had been replaced by a sense of responsibility. Initially I had not paid much attention to what we as the custodians of this wealth had done to it and were continuing to do. Each painted haveli that I saw at Bissau made me more and more upset. Because now I had started noticing the leaking drainage pipes on the facades of the havelis, the iron girders carelessly inserted to support a falling roof, peeling plaster, callously hung clothesline with water dripping over the painted surface, open kitchen with black smoke coming out of the burning firewood camouflaging the beautiful painted surfaces. I was also told that flourishing antique trade in the region is posing another major threat to the existence of these havelis. All this made me furious and I wondered are these people blind or are they insane, can’t they see the beauty that surrounds them? Soon on inquiry I found that most of them were tenants or caretakers and were not well off to be able to look after the property and put in money to restore the paintings. The next question that bothered me was that who were the owners of these properties and why did they not care about their havelis? Another question that had been haunting my mind for quite some time was that how in the first place did these havelis with their beautiful paintings come into existence? There were not one or two havelis that were painted almost all the old havelis were covered with paintings; the whole town was splattered with colour. I wondered what fad had lured the owners to adorn their havelis with these paintings.

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Inadequate infrastructure, repair and graffiti are spoiling splendid frescoes

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With each repair work portions of the beautiful frescoes vanish away forever

On questioning the locals I came to know that the owners of these havelis were descendants of rich marwari merchants that once stayed in the Shekhawati region. Their doughty ancestors had ensured the survival of the rich artistic tradition of the region. Under their patronage spreading over a span of almost one and a half century the local artists converted the blank monochrome look of the towns into a colourful profusion of art. However in search of better prospects their successors moved away from the small towns to big cities leaving behind this wealth in the hands of caretakers and tenants. I was told many of the owners are today big names in the corporate world with flourishing businesses. It is a pity I thought being well-educated and financially sound most of these rich people are totally unaware of the wealth that their ancestors created and the aesthetic sense that they had. Today these jewels lie scattered all over the place left to face their fateful destiny.

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Deserted old town with locked havelis

As we moved from Bissau to Mandawa, Dunlod, Nawalgarh and then to Sikar my dissatisfaction grew more and more. I had just seen the tip of the iceberg and knew plenty was still left to be explored in the Shekhawati region. The feeling of joy of having discovered a treasure soon was replaced by a sense of insecurity of loosing it. I realised, all that till now seemed to me as eternal was doomed to disappear one day. I could see the rich frescoes vanishing right in front of my eyes every minute every second and I was frightened by the mere thought of these beautiful havelis turning into a heap of rubble. Shocked by this thought all the way back home I kept wondering what could I do to save these beautiful havelis . . .

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Untimely death of a rich cultural heritage asset

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Havelis suffer due to the flourishing antique trade in the region

These days it is quite a popular trend to make tourism strategies, define new tourism products, launch tourism promotion drives, publish glossy pictures of destinations in brochures and market them. There is a big talk about Government and private sector synergies but meanwhile what is continuously happening to these so-called ‘Heritage Tourism Destinations’ in the absence of immediate attention is hardly a concern for most of the people. There is lack of awareness that one fine day there would be nothing left if the trend continues. A warning bell is ringing loud and clear but we fail to hear it. Some are not even aware of the fact that something as beautiful as this even exists, some choose to ignore it and some keep helplessly looking at it.

Beautiful images of the paintings still haunt me day and night as I endlessly spend time to figure out a way to save them. What these havelis need urgently are excellent patrons who can give them a new lease of life. The task is Herculean but I know that I am not alone in this. There would be many others mesmerised by the beauty of the painted havelis who can join hands together to make this dream a reality. One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want this bit of our priceless heritage to disappear.

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Abandoned havelis wait in silence for new patrons

Disclaimer: The article expresses individual views of the author. The rights to the content of the article rests with the author.

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