a photo essay by Madhulika Liddle
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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