During all of my annual visits to my ancestral place, i.e. my haveli in Fatehpur Shekhawati I have always made it a point to visit, and admire various havelis with some interesting frescos and carvings. Almost all the havelis in the area are famous for the beautifully designed, carved, and painted interiors. Fatehpur in fact is an important constituent of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan which is often called “The Open Air Art Gallery”.
Shekhawati is an interesting area of towns almost in the middle of the triangle of Jaipur, Delhi, and Bikaner. This semi desert region is a colourful fantasy having a fascination uniquely of its own. ’The open art gallery’ is famous for its overabundance of painted havelis, all commendable pieces of the rich artistic tradition of this region. Shekhawati is the region where the streets are lined with havelis painted in the nature of a vast open air art gallery.
‘Shekhawati’ meaning ‘the land of Shekha’s clan’ derived its name from Rao Shekha(1433 A.D –1488 A.D) a scion of the kachhwaha family of Jaipur. About origin of word Shekhawati, there's an alternative view expressed by Hakim Yusuf Jhunjhunuvi. He says that Shekhawati derives its name form a Persian word "Sheekh" which means sand deposited on the coastal area of sea". This implies that this area has been inundated with seawater long back and converted to sand dunes over a period of thousands of years. The presence of shells, conches etc found in the stone forms in the desert is a clear evidence that this was a sea earlier.
Other main towns in this area are Jhunjhunu, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, and Mandawa. You can just wander through these towns and see no shortage of interesting sites. These places are not yet so popular with tourists because most of these havelis are private and normally open to locals only. Even my entry to many a havelis was questioned at many a times – and I had to call in my uncles (who live in the town) for help.
The development of the frescos in Shekhawati region is linked with the history of the Marwaris, the influential business community from the Shekhawati region. The term Marwari literally refers to someone who hails from or is an inhabitant of Marwar - the erstwhile Jodhpur state. Outside of Rajasthan, Marwari is used to refer to emigrant businessmen from the vicinity of Rajasthan. Shekhawati was once on a caravan route which lured many of these affluent merchants to the region. But with the advent off the British in India the business in the area started dwindling so these merchants moved to the other prosperous part of the country.
Marwari businesses flourished, their net worth rose beyond limits that even they had set for themselves. A lot of this was reinvested in their home towns, in an interesting manner. They constructed havelis in their homeland, Shekhawati, as evidence of their success. As the ultimate symbol of their opulence, the Marwaris, constructed huge palatial havelis for their loved ones who had been left behind. These historical and social developments helped the region blossom into colourful profusion of art and life for almost two centuries from 1750 AD to 1930 AD.
Fatehpur is well connected by road and rail. The nearest airport is Jaipur. Some distances by road:
Delhi – 260 Km,
Sikar – 60 Km
Jaipur - 165 Km,
Jhunjhunu – 50 Km,
Bikaner - 170 Km,
Churu – 40 Km,
Mandawa – 20 Km.
Local Transport: Jeeps, un-metered taxis, auto-rickshaws and tongas. RSRT buses ply between various towns and villages in the region.
Natural Location :
East - Hills of Jhunjhunu
West - Small hills of Biramsar
North - Sand Dunes
South - Hills of Laxmangarh
Shekhawati’s magnificent havelis mansions entirely changed the monochromatic appearance of the region. These havelis display a unique architectural style that evolve around the courtyards to ensure safety and privacy of the women folk and protection from the heat of the long and harsh summers. The havelis of Shekhawati painted predominantly in blue, maroon, yellow, green and indigo, are not just huge, rather they are a beauty to adore. The havelis, popularly have a carved wooden gateway as the main entrance that opens into a courtyard. This courtyard again leads to another courtyard. Larger havelis are double storeyed and have upto four courtyards. The windows of these havelis are richly carved and glow with exquisite mirror work. These latticed windows were the means by which the Rajasthani women viewed the happenings of the outer world.
The highlight of the havelis are the frescoes that are seen almost everywhere - on the facades, gateways, courtyard walls, parapets and ceilings. The frescoes have varying themes that reflect the changing taste and lifestyle of the people from 1750 (earlier fresco paintings) and 1930 (later fresco paintings). Earlier themes like mythological, local legends, hunting scenes gradually gave way to more modern themes like arrival of the British in India, motor cars, aero planes, ships, telephones, gramophones, steam locomotives and trains and balloons. English men in hunting attires and portraits of the haveli owners primely dressed, are also seen painted all over the walls – thus making the havelis interesting for both Indian and Foreign travellers.
The frescoes seem to narrate an interesting tale in a colourful manner. The entire Shekhawati region radiates with such frescoes and it is precisely this reason that it has been bestowed with the royal dignity of an open air art gallery. The Shekhawati landscape is dotted with so many havelis that tracking them is something like a treasure hunt. Various forms of fine art adorn the walls and the ceilings of these structures, complimenting the otherwise flat and barren land. There are also forts, minor castles, mosques, step-wells called baoris, cenotaphs and chattris to discover.
Coming back to my hometown, Fatehpur Shekhawati, this is one of the richest sources for observing some of the finest art in the region. Founded in the mid 15th century by Fateh khan-a Kayamkhani nawab, and taken over by the Rajputs in the 18th century, the town is noted for unmatched frescoes. Its central location attracted many wealthy merchants and has some exquisite havelis - a combination of the Indian and the western styles. Of particular note among these are the Chamaria and Singhania havelis.
Fatehpur is one of the most important towns in the Shekhawati region and is situated midway between Jaipur and Bikaner on National Highway 11 and is located at 27.98° N 74.95° E. Fatehpur is at an elevation of 325 meters above sea level and has a population of 78,471 (2001 India Census)
One of the most interesting havelis in Fatehpur is the Goenka Haveli (1870), which has excellent paintings on the walls, including several depicting Krishna’s pastimes. The main highlight is the painted ceiling in an upstairs room. You get to this haveli by taking the main road north from the bus stand, and then you turn left at the main intersection.
Visitors to the region can stay in any of several heritage hotels that were once feudal castles. Interestingly, many of these historic hotels too are beautiful examples of the painted walls of the region. Simply driving through the small town, or walking down narrow lanes, can throw up brilliant works of art. These are the true treasures of Rajasthan's open air art gallery.
1. Kedia Guest House near the bus stand, has cheap, basic, clean rooms.
2. RTDC Hotel Haveli south part of town. It has a restaurant. They can arrange a taxi to visit the other towns in the area.
A few other havelis that Fatehpur still treasures proudly are:
The Choudaharia Haveli - though in an extreme state of deteriorations has a rare departure of an erotic painting.
The Jagannath Singhania Haveli - has some fine paintings of Radha and Krishna and shows some British men holding guns.
Nand Lal Devra Haveli - this haveli is worth visiting to appreciate the efforts of a French woman, Nadine Le Prince. She infused a new life into the decaying art form fresco painting in this place.
Vishnunath Keria Haveli - has some interesting as well as hilarious paintings - King George and Queen Victoria in an Indian backdrop and Krishna playing a gramaphone for Radha's entertainment.
Other notable havelis are Chamaria Haveli (now a guest house), Harkishan Das Saraogi Haveli and so on. Most of the havelis are privately owned and are not open to the public. The owners may not appreciate someone rushing into their house, uninvited. When you enter the inner courtyard, you are supposed to remove your shoes.
A few other important locations in Fatehpur are the Laxminathji Mandir (temple of lord Vishnu), Digambar Jain Mandir, Sunset Point, Chamaria College, Kabootar Khana (pigeon hall), Chamaria colony, Dholi Sati ka mandir, Do Janti Balaji Dham, Nawabi Baori (or Step well), etc.
I think it will I will be doing a total injustice if I don’t tell you about this Nawabi baori in detail. This baori has 300 steps and is one of the most important architectural feats in the area. Built in 1614 by Nawab Daulat Khan, it is the 17th Wonder of the World.
Most of the havelis in Fatehpur have been closed for decades, hence the frescos in these havelis are still intact and as shining as they were 7-8 decades ago. Even the havelis which are inhabited have rooms which have not been opened for years. During one of my visits to my hometown to attend a marriage, I went into a haveli which had one entire section closed. The owner of the havelis opened one room for me (according to the owner this room was being reopened after 75 years). The room had some of the best frescos I have seen during my entire life time. Even without any light in the room, the paintings on the walls and the mirror work in the paintings appeared as if the painter has just finished his work.
The Shekhawati region is slowly and steadily finding its well deserved place on the tourism maps and more foreign tourists are getting attracted to the region. People from France and other European countries are the ones who are frequenting the area more and more. Aude, a French tourist I met last year, was on her fourth trip of Fatehpur, and she was full of praise for the havelis in Fatehpur. Like her many other people from Europe are now frequenting the region and spending time here.
It’s a pity that with the ever increasing population, advent of the modern luxuries, the internet generation and other necessities of daily life, most of these havelis are now being pulled down to make way for more spacious buildings. This means a great loss of our heritage and the great art work displayed in these havelis. It seems that the time is not very far away when these frescos and havelis will be alive only in the pictures taken by these tourists and of course in my photo collections.
ART OF MAKING FRESCOS
Fresco making is an ancient art of Shekhawati that dates back to several centuries in India. Different regions had their distinct styles; however none could match the perfection of Shekhawati frescoes. The artists of Shekhawati used their experience to invent new methods of making frescos from locally available material. Today Shekhawati region is noted for its human and artistic enterprise. Nowhere else in the world there is such a profusion of wall paintings, so intricate and finely executed, in hundreds of havelis, temples, cenotaphs, walls and forts as in this region.
In Shekhawati, the fresco painters were called chiteras and belonged to the caste of kumhars or potters. They ware also called chejaras or masons since they worked both as painters and builders.
In Shekhawati chejaras (masons) used local material alongwith the principle constituents.
Two styles were developed according to the working process of painting and medium in the Shekhawati frescoes. In the first method the paintings were done on wet surface, which was more stable and known as ‘fresco-buono’ (also known as wet wall paintings, Arayash, Alagila etc). In the second method painting work was done on dry surface of the wall. This method was called ‘Secco’ (also called the tempra method because of the tempra colours used).
To begin with the walls of the havelis were first made sufficiently wet and then plastered with natural lime paste. This method of plastering was locally known as “Sudha Bandan” or “Panna”. The wet wall did not allow the wall to absorb the water from the lime paste, thereby helping to obtain a smooth finish. Rubbing of the paste with hard brushes helped proper gripping of the plaster.
The lime paste normally was mixed with the husk of rice, fibres of Jute, cow dung (gobar), and “Gur” (jaggery) – to solidify it and make it dense and non sticky. Methi was added for hardness and to prevent cracking, and curd – for smoothness, shine and purity and shell as a binding agent in this solution. The wall was then polished with a very fine lime paste called. “Sudha Lape” which was very smooth and shinny. This paste would be applied four or five times and each time it would be polished – a process called ‘Mohra’ in local language. to make the surface become shiny. This would not allow the air to enter and fill the creak. It would then be polished with coconut. To perform this process needed great patience and control. All these processes were responsible for stability of colour.
The subjects of the Shekhawati frescos ranged across a variety of themes, and changed over time, from the mid 18th century when it began, to the early 20th century by when it had almost totally degenerated. The early work tended to be simple, using very few colours, and consisted of floral interpretations of motifs. A great body of the vast amount of work, particularly in interior spaces and around the main entrances, tended to be a mythical and religious record of the people.
Tales of valour were omnipresent, and consisted of a historical cast as well as scenes of great battles, and portraits of well known rulers. Mostly, these were painted in the chhatris of the wells, or in the castles of the Rajput feudal chiefs. Most of the external walls represent aspects of life that were clearly aspirational, or a commentary on their lifestyles. These consisted of scenes of procession, of caparisoned elephants, of celebrated lovers such as Dhola and Maru.
Contact with the English sahib whom the painters had never seen, but about whom they had heard from their patrons, resulted in the last body of amusing work. The havelis now bore witness to the passage of trains, to their gods journeying in motor cars, and to such inventions as the telephone and the aeroplane.