Architecture of Awe
The havelis of Shekhawati bring back stories of valour and the classic charm of history with intricately carved frescoes and structures that defy time
If detailed, delicate design and timeless architecture infused with poetry fascinate you, Shekhawati in Rajasthan is sure to delight your senses. Located just 165 km from the Pink City of Jaipur, the Shekhawati region, consisting of thousands of villages and towns falling under Nawalgarh, Sikar, Jhunjhunu and parts of Churu, Nagaur and Jaipur, is home to the largest concentration of frescoes across the globe.
Shekhawati (the garden of Rao Shekha), is named after the Shekhawat Rajput scion Maha Rao Shekha, who ruled gallantly in the 15th century. After Maha Rao Shekha, his progeny brought to the land different forms of art and culture – a legacy that continues to live on till date. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants, who got interested in the region as a vast amount of trade was diverted through Shekhawati, constructed these palatial havelis or fortified houses. Imbued with wealth and extravaganza, the interiors and exteriors of these havelis were decorated with painted murals, depicting themes varying from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and also Krishna Leela (life sketch of Lord Krishna). Many believe that frescoes were, in fact, introduced by Shekhawati Rajputs themselves and then taken forward by the merchant populations.
A majority of the frescoes were created between 1900 and 1930 by chiteras (artists) from the kumhar (potter) community, and were influenced by Persian, Jaipur and Mughal schools of paintings and based on mythology, hunting scenes and depictions of everyday life. While the outer court of these havelis was termed mardana for men, the inner court was called zenana for females.
At the turn of the 19th century, however, the design practice was impacted considerably under British influence and the advent of technology. Cars, planes and fossil fuel from motors brought pollution, and these paintings started deteriorating with constant exposure to elements. One could consistently observe flaking and washing away of paint, erosion, efflorescence of salts, black algae and discolouration. Conservation was the only answer. Support arrived from Morarka Foundation that introduced the preservation exercise in the Nawalgarh region. The major task, however, was doctoring the frescoes with conventional materials with least possible intervention.
The restoration was carried out in phases. After addressing cleaning, vegetation and biological growth, it was followed by strengthening and repair of damages in different segments of the architecture. With continuous efforts, the havelis are in now in near-perfect shape. While some have been turned into museums, others are now boutique hotels. Morarka Haveli Musuem, a two-courtyard haveli, was constructed in 1900 by Jairam Das Morarka. It is an open-air gallery with around 700 frescoes on its wall. The admission gate opens in the forecourt. A flight of steps leads to another entry gate inside the zenana courtyard. The frescoes here feature characters as kings and queens, flora and fauna, Lord Ganesha and Lord Krishna.
Built in 1890 by Keshar Dev Morarka, the Uttara Haveli was used as a guest house and has now been conserved. Scenes of an army procession, Radha-Krishna Rasleela, Shiv Parvati on a bull and portraits of royalty can be seen in exquisite Mughal and Rajput style frescoes decorated in the Rajasthani technique employing wet plaster studded with mirrors. “Colours in Shekhawati frescoes have lasted for years but we know little about them. Whatever is left of them is beautiful, as if painted yesterday,” says Morarka Foundation chairman Kamal Morarka.
Aside from conservation, a few havelis in Nawalgarh have been completely restored. Original frescoes have been re-painted with organic colours to give them a fresh lease of life. Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli, now a museum, is one such example where it took 10 years for intricate frescoes to return to their original glory under expert supervision. Vegetable and mineral colours splashed the walls with fresh spirit.
The vibrant art and culture of Shekhawati comes alive during the Shekhawati Festival every year in February. Organised jointly by the state tourism department and Morarka Foundation, the Festival offers ed tours, arts and crafts, cattle fair, organic food courts and rural games for a distinct flavour of the region.