Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Shekhawati – The Fresco Wonderland

What do the following surnames have in common – Ruia, Poddar, Goenka, Jhunjhunwalla, Birla, Kothari, Piramal, Singhania, Khaitan, Bajaj, Kedia and Bhartiya?

Behind the doors is the Shekhawati Wonderland of Paintings

Yes, you are right; they are all respected business families belonging to Marwari business community but did you know that they all had their origin in the region of Shekhawati in Rajasthan? While we all know about Rajput warrior clans and their palaces and forts across Rajasthan and their bloody battles, few people know about the people of this cluster of three districts in North Rajasthan who conquered the business landscape across India armed only with business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit.

The bare branches of Khejri trees in a sea of mustard yellow - on the approach to Jhunjhunu

In doing so, the Shekhawati Marwari community left behind a heritage of imposing mansions or havelis adorned with beautiful frescoes in the arid landscape which is now world’s one of the biggest Open Air Art Gallery.

It looks like we are late in discovering Shekhawati! We are in Mandawa and the locals point out to the mansion where Om Puri hides the three fugitives in his madrasa in Salman Khan’s blockbuster ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’. On a street corner, they reverentially point to the spot where Sanjay Dutt’s truck hits the alien in Aamir Khan starrer ‘PK’.

Spot where Sanjay Dutt's truck hits the alien Aamir Khan in PK - Mandawa, Shekhawati

Mandawa is about 260 kms southwest of Delhi and occupies a central position in the grid like layout of towns of interest in Shekhawati. The best way to explore Shekhawati towns is on foot. Turn into any lane and you will be greeted with a procession of mansions of all shapes and sizes. And on their walls and facades is cornucopia of brilliant paintings with all possible pigments used - red, blue, maroon, and even gold and silver.

The Crumbling Glory of Shekhawati

So how on earth this wealth and opulence came into being in the middle of nowhere? In the early eighteenth century the Marwari merchants were invited by the local barons as caravan trade took off between the areas around Indus and Central India. The booming economy led to a construction boom. The second boom happened when the merchants moved to Calcutta in 1820s after the caravan routes declined due to internal strife. Money made in trading cotton, wool, rice, wheat, sugar and opium found its way back home as the merchants seemingly competed with each other to erect magnificent havelis across the hinterland in the shadow of Aravallis. But as the merchants and their descendants settled in far away cities, the towns and their magnificent havelis were gradually abandoned.

One of the grandest havelis in Mandawa, Rajasthan

One of the most outlandish depictions in all of Shekhawati - Mandawa

As if the construction was not enough, an army of painters was deployed to paint the walls. A typically haveli has a soaring gate with richly carved wooden door. Here on the facade, the painters went crazy as they recreated their patrons’ wishes. Huge elephants and horses flank the gates. The arched undersides and eaves that hold the overhanging upper floors have the most vivid panels with unending convoy of portraits, mythological depictions and floral patterns.
The paintings convey the upwardly-mobileness of the owners. Merchants who probably had visited Europe asked the artists to paint automobiles, trains and even hot-air balloons. So while Nandlal Murmuria Haveli has an eclectic mix of Venice landscape, trains, cars and even Nehru riding a horseback, the Newatia Haveli, has a totally outrageous image of a man taking flight wearing wings!

The Sheesh Mahal of Bala Qila in Nawalgarh

Thirty kms south of Mandawa we arrive in Nawalgarh that is home to well preserved havelis that have been turned into ticketed museums as the guides explain the profuse paintings on the wall. But the biggest surprise in Nawalgarh is in a modern building complex as the guide leads us up the stairs and finally into a dark room. After paying for tickets we are led into the Sheesh Mahal. The circular room lies in one of the bastions of a largely ruined Bala Qila. As the lights are turned on the ceiling and roof glints as paintings in rich gold come into view.  On the ceiling is probably the prettiest looking map-picture depicting the Jaipur city. In Shekhawati, the sheer scale and scale of paintings will leave you dazzled.

The inside courtyard of a haveli in Fatehpur, Rajasthan

The restored Nand Lal Devra Haveli in Fatehpur, Shekhawati, Rajasthan

Fatehpur lies 20 kms to the west of Mandawa and has complete array of architecture. For the first time you find a tomb here that looks like a shrine and belongs to Nawab Alef Khan. The star attraction is profusely painted and conserved Nand Lal Devra Haveli bought by a French artist. The new paintings over the originals though will scandalise art lovers. At the edge of the town is a wonderfully maintained building built in 1925 and a hospital just beyond, both built by Bhartiyas.

Jagannath Singhania Chhatri in Fatehpur, Shekhawati

The Marwari merchants apart from their mansions also built family cenotaphs locally called chhatris. Just across the road is the serene looking and nicely maintained Jagannath Singhania Chhatri inside fortress like walls. Climbing from the rear you are treated to a procession of domes of all sizes on all sides of the terrace. Below the walls are covered with paintings. 

Catching the sunset at Sethani ka Johara in Churu, Shekhawati

It is evening as we near Churu. It is time to see something different. Just outside the city is the most impressive water tank called Sethani ka Johara. The Marwari merchants while building opulent mansions also contributed to philanthropy. The tank was commissioned as a relief project during the terrible famine of 1899. Over the quiet waters ringed by graceful pavilions, we watch the sun go down. The sun might have gone down over the glory days of Shekhawati but a new day will soon dawn on a resurrected Shekhawati.

Related stories on this blog

A version of the story appears in the September 2016 issue of NRI Achievers magazine