It is fascinating. It is colorful. It is even slightly bizarre. A freshly painted wall at Saraf haveli, with two images vying for our attention – one of the Wright brothers making their first trip up into the air, looking very tiny and unsure in their brown European coats. And right next to it, a prince on horseback, long pink flowing silk robes and all, attacking a tiger with a spear. The caption under the first says, udne wala jahaj [the flying machine] while the second is well, self explanatory.
Elsewhere, there is a car of unknown shape and make, a woman near a gramophone, and scattered across havelis are various men in bowler hats, some twirling their bushy mustaches, some content to just be clean-shaven Englishmen. On the outer wall of the Modi Haveli, in a puzzling juxtaposition, is an image of a rather thin Lord Shiva in a typical dance pose, next to it a herd of cows looking up longingly at Krishna high up on a tree (why?), and right below that a longish train, with exactly two people peering expectantly out of each window. Amidst all this, Ram and Sita are depicted with their retinue, the picture of piety. And Krishna the lover-thief-cowboy-god is shown everywhere, frolicking with the gopis inebriated by the sound of his music, and dancing the eternal dance of life with him.
If you happened to read my earlier post when art is irrelevant and thought that all of Shekhawati was in decay and disrepair, well, that is not true… Parts of Shekhawati are well maintained, colorful, even spectacular, boasting [albeit very quietly] of some of the most remarkable wall murals and frescoes you can see anywhere in India. And as guide books never seem to tire of saying, the world’s largest open air art gallery…
Built mostly in the nineteenth century, these havelis are the property of the local business-trading community, the Marwaris. In a way, it was part of their commitment to give back to the community they had left in search of money and fame. All at once, the larger the haveli, the higher the prestige of the owner – according to our guide, Ishwardas Modi haveli in Jhunjhunu where we started our haveli-hopping from had 365 windows, and I have read of one with over a thousand… And the more elaborate the frescoes and murals, ditto. Additionally, the women who were left behind in these havelis had more colour around them to make up for the absence of colour in their surroundings and perhaps, lives too…
As for the somewhat weird cacophony of images, they were representative of the changing times. My guess is that the owners and the artists themselves must have started safe with those images that were familiar and even essential, gods and goddesses and other mythological themes. At the same time, somewhere out there in the wide world, someone had found a way to fly… The nouveau-riche traveled to England and other parts of Europe and 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. Cars and airplanes painted by men who had never seen one in their lives; nor for that matter had they seen the any of the gods they painted on these walls. Closer home, for these men with a sharp business sense, it was imperative to please the Englishmen whose approving nod held the key to their success. So on came the images of bolwer-hatted and brown-suited Englishmen, and ladies in their stiff evening gowns and delicate parasols.
We could cover only the towns of Jhunjhunu and Mandawa since we had only one day with us devoted to the frescoes. And in any case, by the time we had finished wandering around Jhunjhunu, my husband had developed a severe case of frescophobia. Jhunjhunu is the largest town in that area, and bursts with the naïve self importance of the typical regional headquarters. Be sure to take in some of the more accessible havelis and the Khetri Mahal. This palace of winds is strikingly similar to the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, although locals will tell you proudly and somewhat indignantly, that this was built ay before its more famous cousin. Walk up the narrow winding ramp, through the various levels to the top, startling hawks and kites that have made it their base, for a lovely view of the town and the distant hills. If you have the time, make a trip to some of the cenotaphs and stepwells that the region is famous for.
Of the temples, give the Rani Sati mandir a cheerful and firm miss but try to include a visit to the Bihariji temple – when we went there, we found it locked since the pujari had gone away for the Sunday, locking the temple behind him. The board just before you enter assures you that this temple contains some of the finest examples of the art work that this region is famous for. After that build-up, we felt disappointed to have missed it, but evidently the gods need to rest too.
Mandawa is dominated by the imposing Castle Mandawa (fort converted into a hotel, surprise surprise); stay there or just grab a meal and chat with the friendly staff to have a look around the castle. Walk into the town and you will find little kids walking up to you offering to show you around. In Mandawa, the star attraction is the Jhunjhunwala haveli with the famous gold room said to contain three kilos worth of gold etched in the frescoes. Enter the haveli through the partially opened small gate (which was earlier meant for the sentries and servants while the owner himself entered royally through the large gate) to be greeted(?) by clothes set out for drying flying in the breeze and the grumpy greedy chowkidar. Once a small sum of money changes hands, you get to enter the gold room and spend as much time as you wish, just staring at the murals, made all the more beautiful by the faint sunlight streaming in through the colored cut glass set on all windows and door tops. Gold or no gold, this room has some magic; request for the door to be shut for a minute and stand in the centre of the room, as the art fills up your senses as your eyes get slowly used to the semi darkness.
The technique used in painting these frescoes, I discovered is the Italian method of fresco-buono dating back to the 14th century. The artists made 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 colors 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 protection from damage caused by human interference and equally, neglect…
We were based in Surajgarh in Northern Rajasthan at the newly restored Surajgarh fort-hotel. We spent the weekend there, Saturday devoted entirely to R&R, listening to the plaintive wails of the peacocks that fly in and out of the courtyard and watching the sun go down in the distant plains, a deep brilliant blue bed-sheet spread across the sky, with layers and layers of warm colors rolling in and out of the canvas.
While the hotel suffers from many teething problems, its advantage lies in its proximity to Delhi. Pilani is just half an hour away while other important towns in the area are three to four hours by road. However, if you are interested in a serious exploration of the Shekhawati region, I would recommend a base at one of the more centrally located towns like Mandawa or Jhunjhunu. At every town, find a local guide to take you around; we did not carry a map with us, and going by the twists and turns the narrow lanes in Jhunjhunu took, I doubt if even a map would have served us very well. For the most part, the locals are indifferent, even amused when you ask them for directions; some of them plainly ignorant – kaun si haveli? As one who has suffered the dry heat of Rajasthan, not expecting it in the monsoon months, I would also recommend travel only during the cooler months, from October till March. Shekhawati deserves a minimum of three days, a week if you are an art lover. There are no easy connections to the region from Bombay, but if you happen to be in Jaipur (or anywhere else in Rajasthan) or even in Delhi, do not miss a trip to Shekhawati.