November 29, 2021

When art is irrelevant

Aap yahan ghoomne ke liye aaye hain? [have you come here for sightseeing?] asks the aged shopkeeper as he hands us the bottle of Bisleri… I nod as I wonder whether his emphasis is on yahan or ghoomne…

Aap Jhunjhunu dekhna chahatey hain? [you wish to see Jhunjhunu?] he continues. The question unsaid but loud and clear in his eyes, par yahan dekhne ke liye hai kya? [what is there to see in this place?] He sees us, eager faces on a Sunday morning, camera and guide book in hand, peers across the road and sees our car parked there under the tree and decides that we mean business. You can see the Rani Sati temple, he concedes…

We explain to him, politely but firmly that we do not wish to see temples but havelis – the painted havelis that the Shekhawati region is so famous for. Accha, haveli… woh toh saare bandh padey hain… [oh, the havelis, they are all mostly shut now]

We drive into town and cross Gandhi chowk as directed (wondering at the absence of the promised statue) and park in one corner of a busy road, hoping to ask the cop standing there for further directions. He points us to the man standing next to him, voila! he is the local guide and can show us round for “whatever we pay out of our hearts”… And with that, Raju Guide (I am not making this up) took over our lives and “sight-seeing” plans for the next few hours.

Raju starts off with turning back towards the road we came from – and minor warning bells go off in my head – just where are we going? Rani Sati Mandir says Raju. Surprise, surprise. And this is what I found out later, much much later, after we had returned to Bombay – out of the one hundred odd sati temples in Rajasthan, the Rani Sati temple in Jhunjhunu is the most “famous”, attracting over 300,000 people every year during the three days of ceremonies in honor of Rani Sati Narayani Devi, a woman who died in 1295 upon the funeral pyre of her husband, Tandhan Das…

And more… If we go into the history of the practice of sati in Rajasthan there can be no denying that the phenomenon of sati revival in Rajasthan is directly linked to the phenomenal expansion of the commercial returns of the Jhunjhunu Rani Sati temple. This has led to the proliferation of sati temples all over the state, particularly the Shekawati region ( comprised of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjunu districts). And wealthy businessmen hailing from this region have established sati temples in other parts of the country for example in Bombay and Delhi as well in a dozen foreign countries.

At that time, blissfully unaware of all this, we do not wish to hurt Raju’s feelings. We put off this mandir trip to the end ignoring his protests that the temple shut at 1. We chat with Raju as we walk through narrower-than-a needle’s eye lanes, shops selling everything from tacky plasticware to bright and cheerful glass bangles to dull and withered vegetables…

So do you get many tourists here, I ask, when Guide tells us that he is indeed that, a full-time guide. Yes, we get a lot of tourists but most of them are foreigners… Par baahar se loge jyada nahi aatey, [but we don’t get many people from outside] he says non-chalantly, in one sweep cleanly stating that big divide between that town and the rest of India, while including unselfconsciously, the larger world out there which has maintained Shekhawati and even Jhunjhunu on its radius over the years…

I mull over this as we kept walking, awkwardly negotiating cows and camels on these lanes, as Raju walks ahead with a quick confident step… At our first stop at Ishwardas Modi haveli, I find an answer –

Vides se toh bahut loge aatey hain – aap jaise loge toh bahut kam aatey hain aur jo aatey bhi hain, unko kuch accha nahi lagta… [A lot of foreigners come her, but a very few people like you]. And in an instant, I felt conscious of being an outsider, an ‘aap jaise loge‘ in a tiny corner of my own country. Over three hundred thousand people enter this little town every year; their tracks stop at the Rani Sati temple…

delhi 042

And as I walk around looking at the havelis and the state of the walls and the frescoes, I wonder if that is not actually for the best. Art that has survived the extreme temperatures of the whimsical desert country, the furious heat of the days and bitter cold of the nights is now in utter decay. Havelis that were once the pride of the owners, and the community itself, have now been let out to families who need a cheap room to stay in, and treat that space as just that.

At the Jhunjhunu haveli in Mandawa, close to Jhunjhunu, the caretaker charges us fifty rupees to enter the “gold room” – 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 half an hour in that room admiring each of these masterpieces, repeatedly declining the caretaker’s offer to sell us that torn “picture postcard books” of the area at a discount.

delhi 072

I feel quite 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 mardana, or the main courtyard once upon a time… and wham! Four different families live there now, the cooking smells and smoke of each fight for space to settle on the same walls where the frescoes have bravely fought their own colorful battles for over a century. Clothes hang out of the once ornate windows which served the women, literally, as windows to the outside world… And where the original paint has peeled off beyond repair, there is a coat of fresh whitewash over the walls…

Turning, in one stroke of the brush, a century of art into wall paint…

The families inside carry on with whatever they are doing; the awkwardness about intruding only on our part and not theirs… We step out of the havelis feeling a deep sense of loss and life there goes on as usual too… What has caused this, I wonder aloud… callous owners? ignorant occupants? greedy caretakers? an utterly indifferent government? Or more likely, a combination of all these…?

delhi 045

Raju Guide says that the owners of these havelis are rich businessen in Bombay and Calcutta; they can afford to maintain these homes if they so wish (as indeed some of them do). But the problem is just that – these havelis are no longer home to them, and the art that was once a source of pride and pleasure to them, no longer relevant…

I wonder about a society where art has been allowed to decay and be destroyed because it is no longer relevant? I wonder about all the travel guides and articles I had read before setting off, which wax lyrical about the “open air gallery” nature of Shekhawati, but maintain a puzzling silence over the state of a majority of these “galleries”…?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *