The Havelis of Shekhavati:
a photo essay by Madhulika Liddle

1) The Hindu god Krishna, recognisable by his blue-pigmented skin, holds hands with adoring women as he cavorts around the rectangular edge of an ornately painted ceiling in a haveli-- a mansion-- in Shekhavati. Shekhavati ('The Garden of Shekha’) lies within the historic subdivision of Rajasthan known as Marwar, and is named for a local medieval chieftain called Rao Shekha (1433-88). It is a hot, arid land, its dusty profile relieved by scrub brush-- and by splendid early-20th-century havelis.
        The havelis are to be found in a handful of towns and villages-- Mukandgarh, Mandawa, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Dundlod, Jhunjhunu and Baggar-- and are lavishly decorated with exquisite (and more often than not, quirky!) frescoes. Colonnaded and adorned with wrought iron balconies, shuttered windows, and frescoes depicting everything from European ladies and pink-cheeked cherubs to local warriors and Hindu deities, the havelis are more than mere houses.

2) The havelis of Shekhavati, almost without exception, owe their existence to local merchants who made it big. The Marwaris are universally acknowledged to be canny businessmen, and in the 18th and 19th centuries a large number of them headed for the metropolises (mainly Bombay and Calcutta) and swiftly set about amassing fortunes. By the early 1900s, many of them had made vast sums of money in industries as diverse as cotton and opium; and they were ready to show off their wealth back home in Shekhavati.
        A number of these millionaires were philanthropists like Seth Chaturbhuj Piramal Makharia, the man who made the Piramal haveli in Baggar. Piramal constructed schools and hospitals, and donated great sums of money for the welfare of Baggar’s residents. Baggar is today, thanks to the efforts of the Piramal clan, a prosperous hamlet; and its best-known building is the beautifully frescoed Piramal haveli. In the photograph shown here is a portion of a fresco adorning the wall around the first courtyard of the Piramal haveli. On the left is a typically Indian subject: Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, bestowing largesse on her devotees. On the right is another deity straight out of Hindu scripture: Krishna playing his flute. In the centre, incongruously enough, is a cherub.

3) Another example of the delightfully eclectic style of Shekhavati art: East and West meet on a single plane-- this time on a temple wall. The Gopinath Mandir in Mukandgarh, otherwise none too spectacular, has large frescoes on its walls; and as one would expect, the frescoes are predominantly of characters out of Hindu mythology. The fresco depicted in the photograph centres around the monkey-god, Hanuman, shown wrestling with another monkey. The fascination with all things European, however, shows through-- the faded figures below the main fresco are definitely sitting on Victorian chairs. And one of the figures-- the one on the far right-- is obviously wearing a hat.

4) A short walk along a very dusty road from the Gopinath Mandir in Mukandgarh, is the Saraf haveli. Like most of the havelis in Shekhavati, the Saraf haveli too is no longer occupied by the clan that constructed it. (The majority of Shekhavati’s havelis are occupied by caretakers who have now become, more or less, de facto owners. Some havelis, long abandoned, have been taken over by squatters, who scrawl over the frescoes, or allow smoke from kitchen fires to blacken them.)
        The men and boys sitting outside the Saraf haveli are not occupants-- they are just curious locals. The family no longer lives at the haveli, but visitors are welcome to enter and see the haveli for themselves. (Interestingly, the family name Saraf is a generic name for a banker or moneylender. It has its roots in the Arabic sarraf, which was borrowed into Persian as saraf, and became anglicised during the days of the British Raj as Shroff).

5) Inside Mandawa, a town singularly rich in gorgeous havelis. And inside one of the few havelis that actually charges an entry fee-- but with good reason. The Jhunjhunwala haveli in Mandawa finds its way into coffee table books on the strength of this intricately painted ceiling and the walls below it. The ubiquitous Krishna again appears here with his beloved gopis-- milkmaids-- in an extravaganza of colours highlighted with gold wash.
        As in other parts of Rajasthan, in Shekhavati too frescoes were originally made by painting vegetable dyes onto wet lime plaster. The colour was allowed to set along with the plaster, after which a second layer of plaster was laid on top-- and the painting made all over again on the wet plaster. The many layers, each with its own colours dried deep into the lime, made the frescoes resistant to harsh sunlight.
Later havelis in Shekhavati used not just vegetable dyes, but also imported synthetic colours. The vivid blues seen in many frescoes, for instance, were brought all the way from Germany: another testimony to the wealth of the local businessmen.

6) Another view of the painted room at the Jhunjhunwala haveli in Mandawa. The upper sections of the walls are, according to the young woman who opened the room for us, studded with pieces of coloured glass that was imported from Europe. The painting, at any rate, appears far superior to the slightly tacky glasswork. The panels on either side of the central window depict Marwari noblemen; the central panel below depicts the elephant-headed Hindu deity, Ganesh.

7) Although not as popular as its better-known neighbour the Jhunjhunwala haveli, the Gulab Rai Ladia haveli in Mandawa can boast of better glasswork. The dwar-- the front door-- of the haveli is decorated with mirror and glass, arranged in floral patterns along the façade. Above are tall windows shuttered against the harsh summer sun, and-- on the top left of the photograph-- a fading depiction of an elephant.

8) One of the best-maintained havelis in all of Shekhavati, the Chokhani haveli in Mandawa is a huge mansion divided into two parts. One part is occupied; the other lies vacant but is open to visitors. Inside, the walls, arches, balconies, and jharokhas (windows) of the haveli are covered with intricate and beautiful frescoes; outside, time has taken its toll on the paintings, and parts of them are disintegrating.
        In this photograph, a camel cart stands in the shade of a neem (margosa) tree outside the Chokhani haveli. The camel looks on at the caparisoned elephants painted on the boundary wall, while the man takes a breather.
        Mandawa is full of similar scenes, simply because it’s so full of havelis. In nearly all of Shekhavati’s towns, you’ll find a haveli down every street; in Mandawa, you’re likely to find a dozen or so down every street. Ornate plaster scrollwork and fading frescoes adorn every second building here-- even the building that houses the State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur has a charming façade painted over with European soldiers on the march.

9) The town of Fatehpur has its share of havelis, but few are as beautiful or well maintained as those in nearby towns like Mandawa. The newly restored Nadine Le Prince Haveli and Cultural Centre (locally known as the 'Angrez ki haveli’-- the haveli of the English) is an exception. Painstakingly (and expensively) restored at a cost of close to Rs 10 million, the haveli is richly painted inside and out. The photograph shows a section of the outside wall, adjacent to the street, painted mainly in shades of red and blue, and depicting scenes from court life.
        The scenes are very Indian, which sets the haveli apart, since it was considered fashionable to include scenes relating to Europe, or at least to modern times, in paintings. Some literally went out of their way to ensure that the frescoes were up to date: Anandilal Poddar, who constructed the Dr. Ramnath A Poddar haveli in Nawalgarh in 1902, sent the artist all the way to Bombay so that he could see what a train looked like-- and then reproduce it on the wall of the haveli.

10) A carefully executed example of how Shekhavati frescoes happily blend India and Europe: this painted archway is neatly divided into two panels. The one on the left depicts scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna, while the one on the right depicts European nobility-- perhaps even royalty. Combining Hindu mythology with European elements may seem odd, but at least in this particular example, they’re not part of the same picture.
    Other artists of the era apparently had few qualms about merrily mixing the elements of their art: the Piramal haveli in Baggar, for instance, has a painting that shows a Hindu deity flying an aeroplane.

(--December 2005)

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