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Shekhawati - An Open Air Art Gallery

Paintings are a common expression in Rajasthan, and everything from village huts, simple decorated with a plaster of cowdung paste and lime, to the wall paintings found in palaces echo this. However, if there is one region that stands out for its consummate artistry, it is the Shekhawati region where the streets are lined with havelis painted in the nature of a vast open air art gallery.

The Shekhawati region lies in the triangle between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner, and consists of a semi-arid desert. It is also the home of the Marwaris, India's mercantile community that now commands vast business empires in different parts of the country and the world. When the Marwaris made their first froays with the maharajas whom they served, they found that there was money to be made from establishing business in distant centres. Under the Britist their prosperity aspired even higher, and they took their businesses to Calcutta and Surat and other pockets of influence.

With the money they made, they ordered lavish havelis back home, and in order to make them attractive, had them painted in what has come to be defined as the Shekhawati fresco style. A sense of competitiveness brought in excess, since this provided the worth of the owner's presumed wealth. The style of fresco painting is locally known as ala gila. The colours, mixed into a paste, were applied on to the damp wall finished with a plaster of lime paste. The colours were made to seep into the damp plaster through a process that consisted of beating, burnishing and polishing. The painters and masons who were commissioned for the task undertook large panels together, working in teams so that joints in plaster, and therefore in the frescos, did not show. Binding agents such as tempera, gum and camel fat were also used.

The pigments were obtained from iron rich sediments (greens, yellow, ochres), lampblack (black), indigo (blues), stone powder (red), saffron (orange) and chalk (white). The process of creating the frescos was tedious. A wall was given two layers of clay plaster, a third of mortar into which finely cut pieces of hessian were added, and followed by a coat of plaster using lime, gravel or brick dust. Another coat of lime also used marble dust. The final coat consisted of sieved lime dust made into a paste using sour buttermilk and jaggery. This was the basic surface on which the painters had to draw and fill in colours while the uppermost layer was still wet. This was then polished with smooth agate, and dry coconut rubbed in to seal in the painting. The exercise may have been arduous, but is ensured that the paintings have lasted over a century, their only damage being man- made more than wrought by nature. Considering that most of these paintings are out in the open, this is all the more surprising.

The subjects of the Shekhawati frescos ranged across a variety of themes, and changed over time, from the late 18th century when it began, to the early 20th century by when it had almost totally degenerated.

FLORAL: The early work tended to be simple, using fewer colours, and consisted of floral interpretations of motifs. Later, floral work was mostly reserved for the more awkward elements of architecture, such as pillars and arches. More commonly, floral motifs were used to create frames and unite a complete section, within which were canvases of paintings. In the few Muslim havelis, only floral representations of foliage are to be found.

RELIGIOUS: 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. The subjects, however, were not always painted in idolatory form, but used subjects from Indian religious legends and fables, so that entire canvases could be covered with the marriage processions of gods, or their great wars with the demons, or depictions from the Ramayana. The legends of Krishna, and in particular Ras Leela, find representation in the circular ceiling below domes.

HISTORIC: Tales of valour are omnipresent, and consist 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 who controlled small feudatory states in this region.

SECULAR: Most of the external walls represent aspects of life that were clearly aspirational, or a commentary on their lifestyles. These consisted of scenes of processions, of caparisoned lovers such as Dhola and Maru, even trompe I'oeil paintings that created a suspension of belief in disbelief. Women peeping out of windows, a camel straddling a small window, or a staircase turning into an elephant with the balustrade its trunk, these were some of the more delightful representations.

INFLUENCE OF THE RAJ: 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 a musing 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. Even portraits of English sahibs and memsahibs were painted, some walking their dog, others engaged in needlework- pursuits that the people of the region must have looked upon with a sense of humour, for the paintings are robbed of serious intent, and have degenerated by this time into a form of caricature.

The Shekhawati fresco had ceased to be by the 1930s, after having resorted to absurd gimmickry, the end more the result of the migration of the Marwari families. The abandonment of the region in the hand of caretakers led to the desecration of the murals, with several examples of beautiful art simply painted over by hoarding painters and shop banners. In the last decade, a growing awareness of the heritage has been able to stem this rot to a great extent, though the lack of maintenance is taking its toll on the art of the region.

Visitors to the Shekhawati 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 these small towns, or walking down narrow lanes, can throw up brilliant works of art.

 
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