The frescoes on havelis in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region are not just works of art but a visual documentation of an era. Kavita Kanan Chandra travels around the state to meet the artists who are restoring the heritage paintings
A turbaned gentleman stands against a carved wooden door, his elaborately patterned walking stick and strings of pearls around his neck hinting at his rich lineage. A few doors down the road, a bejewelled woman stands in bright attire… Next follows a marching row of Raj-era soldiers and then, a chugging steam engine! As I walk down the winding alleys of Nawalgarh, lined by majestic havelis with richly painted walls, I feel as if I am walking back in time. The frescoes, in brilliant shades of red, blue, yellow and orange, talk of a time when rich traders lived in these mansions. From royal elephant safaris to British officers out on a stroll and from intricate flower jaals to proud stallions on a gallop, these walls bear testimony to a flourishing era. This bustling town in the heart of Rajasthan is home to some of the most spectacular painted havelis of the Shekhawati region. The century-old frescoes brighten the interiors of the havelis and also spill out onto the street, earning the region the sobriquet of an open art gallery. Strewn around the place are havelis, forts, castles, cenotaphs and temples with fabulous frescoes.
The curiosity to explore these century-old frescoes and meet the artists who are restoring them has led me to travel around Nawalgarh, Mandawa and Churi Ajitgarh, among hundreds of painted towns and villages in the Jhunjhunu and Sikar districts of Rajasthan. In Nawalgarh, as I enter the exquisitely painted Ramnath A Podar Haveli, now a museum, I am overwhelmed by the detailed frescoes in kaleidoscopic shades covering every inch of the walls! From the shadows of a pillar emerges the frail Bhairon Lal Swarnkar, an artist who is working on preserving this heritage art. It is frightening to imagine the 62-yearold balancing on makeshift ladders, craning his neck to touch up the frescoes on the high walls and ceilings. But for Swarnkar, Shekhawati is a mission. “The process of preserving frescoes entails perseverance and attention to detail, but saving these artworks is what keeps me going,” says the soft-spoken artist. “Other than restoration, I want to create awareness among locals about their cultural heritage and hope to reconnect all the forgotten owners of havelis with their art heritage,” he adds.
A reputed painter of miniatures, Swarnkar of Bhilwara, Rajasthan, has made Nawalgarh his karma bhoomi (place of work) since 1995, pioneering the conservation of frescoes. The recipient of several awards for miniature paintings, temple art and intricate gold inlay work in glass, he had just started working on the havelis when he was invited by the owners of Podar haveli to restore its faded walls. Today, the museum is one of the region’s best maintained and is a true representation of the lost art.
Anand Kumar Sharma, another restoration artist, whom I meet at Vivaana Culture Hotel (once Nimani Kothi) in Churi Ajitgarh, Jhunjhunu, tells me that the frescoes were originally created by mixing vegetable dyes into wet lime plaster. “The painter applied a layer of lime very slowly over a plastered wall. After it dried a little, a smooth stone was used to rub the surface in order to make it smooth and give it a shine. The painter etched and applied paint while the plaster was still a little wet so that the colours were soaked up, penetrating the plaster in such a manner that they would not be easy to erase,” he explains.
While preserving the original works, Swarnkar has devised a process close to the original technique. “There are two main methods of painting these frescoes – pakki araj, or wet painting, and kacchi araj, or dry painting. The former is more durable and elaborate. For dry painting, powdered limestone is mixed with colours and filled in etchings. But the colours may fade early,” says the artist. In the lime plaster, he adds powdered marble and seashells.
I find that I am most taken in by Mandawa. Once a trading post on the Delhi-Bikaner route, it is today a busy market town with colourful frescoes on more than 150 havelis brightening up its streets. The town traces its history to the 15th century, when Rao Shekhaji (1433-1488) of Kachhwaha dynasty captured the northeast regions of modern-day Rajasthan. His descendants established scattered fiefdoms in the region collectively known as Shekhawati. While the royals built forts, the merchants of Marwar who settled here built havelis and beautified them with elaborate frescoes. As I tour the town, the havelis – from the 100-year-old Sewaram Saraf haveli and the Ram Pratab Nemani haveli that has been converted into a hotel, to the Murmuria Haveli with elaborate paintings of cars and trains – tell me tales of another time.
At the end of my journey at Vivaana Culture Hotel, as I sip a cup of tea in the art hotel’s Fresco Lounge, I see Sharma painstakingly restoring a fresco. I murmur a “thank you” to all the artists who are keeping our heritage alive.
The author is a travel writer and the views expressed in the article are her own