A TRAIN on the walls of Nawalgarh’s Podar haveli or mansion set me free in December 2009. Free to imagine how the semi-desert Shekhawati region’s painted mercantile residences shone in the 19th century. Free to wonder at the magic of restoration, renewing flaking frescoes for posterity.
Rita, a dear schoolmate from our Jaipur alma mater takes me to the Podar haveli on our last day in Shekhawati, before we drive back to the Rajasthan capital, 180 km. southwards. Within the mansion turned museum, the painted station with its train exudes creative energy. Each shuttered compartment has passengers at the windows. Above it, an epic scene unfolds horizontally. For Ramnath A. Podar chose to restore the wrought-iron verandah-fringed outer walls by 90 per cent, the inner rooms by 60 per cent, illuminating their time-ravaged natural pigments.
A scene from the epics at a Bissau haveli
Inspired by colonial rule...!!
Within the haveli, through the baithaks or sitting rooms with ornate hookahs and glass lamps, past arched passageways and courtyards, the local fresco art celebrates the family fortune. Imbued with flat folksy perspectives, interspersed with colonial elements, scenes unspool dramatically on the walls – from Kurukshetra to Venice, from the Rajasthani love story of Dhola-Maru to the Ramayana. These Podars, we learn, are as lauded for their educational philanthropy.
The haveli gives us much to mull over at lunch besides the delectable gatte ki sabji and ker sangri at the stately Roop Niwas heritage hotel nearby, run by a local Thakur family. The hotel promises camel safaris and horseback expeditions, offbeat choices beyond the local taxi.
Between bites, we ask: If the Podars could re-ignite fresco magic, why did the Sarafs of Mukundgarh or the Modis of Jhunjhunu distance themselves from their havelis? What untold stories teem through Shekhawati, through the bauris or stepwells, abandoned forts, temples and local bazaars?
The Krishna Leela as seen through an artist's eyes
What makes these natural pigments so luminous, even today?
Our fresco hunt that December takes us through Mukundgarh, Bissau, Alsisar, Malsisar, and Nawalgarh from our base at the Jhunjhunu circuit house. From these towns, besides Mandawa, Mahansar, Churu, and Dundlod, 19th century Marwari merchant adventurers named Saraf, Modi, Kanoria, Murarka, Tibrewal, Singhania and others, set out for Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, or Karachi to seek their fortunes. Their now-abandoned Shekhawati havelis provide current clues to the pulse of Indian business. Among their number are the legendary Kolkata-based Birla family, originally from Shekhawati’s Pilani.
The brilliant walls take us back to our geography teacher at school, who said, “The Thar desert provides little to those who live off it. They toil with more ingenuity than people from the green, fertile lands of Bengal or Kerala. The desert scrub offers little colour. So, local people compensate with bright colours for their clothing, or in their homes….”
This rings true of the Podar mansion. It is a stark contrast to our first stop, the Saraf haveli at Mukundgarh. Under a bleached moon at 4.30 p.m., peacocks perch atop crumbling ramparts, as pigeons call from netting over its cobweb-festooned dusty inner courtyard. Portraits of Indian freedom fighters loom over the entrance arch, while niches safeguard scenes from the Krishna Leela.
Even the ceilings are detailed with colour and imaginary scenes...
Street children, their hair sun-leached golden, follow us, chanting, “Hello toffee!! Hello pain…!” What’s that? It translates to pen, we learn. But we have neither to offer them. Do foreign tourists to this triangular semi-desert belt between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner carry such gifts in their backpacks?
From the circuit house, we explore Jhunjhunu’s bustling Phootla Bazaar, in search of locally-crafted scissors, besides the Modi haveli. Up a broad flight of stairs, its courtyard opens to the skies, is a crimson-rich baithak embellished with mirrors. But its carpets are threadbare, the air smells mothballed. The rheumy-eyed caretaker has few cues about whether his masters will ever return.
After an uncomfortably close encounter with the local ostentatious Rani Sati temple, Rita and I board a décor-rich auto-rickshaw post-dusk, seeking the Jama Masjid and the Radha Krisha temple built by Capt. Henry Forester, a Briton of notably secular tastes. Shadows stalk us, the only women on the streets at that hour. At the masjid, a lone devotee man concentrates on namaz; while at the tranquil temple under the pipal tree, a solitary worshipper is immersed in the arati.
But Shekhawati’s clarion call to the tourist remains thousands of frescoes, scattered across hundreds of havelis. Did these Marwari traders commission such painted scenes – reminiscent of the Pabuji phad cloth scrolls that the itinerant bhopas or minstrels of Shekhawati use – to share their adventures with their families back home? Or to remind their Shekhawati neighbours that though they lived austerely at their new trade bases, their worldly success was marked by their grand havelis, including some four-storeyed ones?
Lady at her toilette
Cuing into Mughal art, some havelis boast of geometric patterns and blooms. Beyond Indian epics, wondrous colonial elements surge to the fore – firang soldiers and rosy-cheeked officials in a Bissau room among the char haveli, a quaint motor car on a fading wall, its driver primly bowler-hatted.
Were these created by itinerant painters from Jaipur or the local masons? No one knows. Using either traditional secco techniques on dry walls, or fresco on wet plaster, their palette was rich with natural pigments – lampblack for black, lime for white, saffron for orange, and so on.
Historically, Shekhawati was an important 14th century trading post on the caravan route to Gujarat. It was named after Rao Shekha, a Kachchawa clan chieftain in the 15th century, whose descendents reached across the Aravallis after the decline of the Mughals, aligning their fortunes with the Amber and Bikaner rulers. Following invasions by local rulers, the British stepped into Shekhawati in the 18th century, putting an end to the caravan route.
Whether restored or crumbling, these frescoes reveal unique historic and social commentaries. Unless other owners pick up early cues from the Podars of Nawalgarh, a prompt visit might dispel disappointment before the painted legacy crumbles to desert dust.
Rita and her husband Harish in the courtyard of a haveli
If the Italian government can safeguard Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel zealously, must we lag so far behind?