“How do you plan to preserve these havelis?” I asked everyone I met. I never got an answer, mostly a shrug, at times a half-baked “We will do something” as their voice trailed off. There was greater pride in conversations when they showed me their photograph albums with the visiting film stars than when they spoke about the art that abounds all around them.
‘An art gallery of open air frescos’ is how most guidebooks describe the towns of Shekhawati. But that is not what caught my fancy as I flipped through the pages. For long, I have harboured a travel fantasy to visit all important stops across the entire length of the erstwhile Silk Route. Be it Kochi (Muziris), Malacca, Galle or Istanbul, each place has a unique history and character, a gradual amalgamation of the varied cultures and influences that trade brought with it.
Thakur Nawal Singh, a Rajput aristocrat, who had already fortified Nawalgarh, decided to build another fort at neighboring Mandawa in the 18th century. Caravans on the Silk Route were passing through this town, and it was necessary to assert control over a trading outpost. Trade prospered and the Marwaris merchants and moneylenders from neighbouring regions in Rajasthan, reassured by the military protection that the Rajput royalty offered, soon started settling around the forts at Nawalgarh and Mandawa. They lived here as long as the trade lasted, their riches sustaining the region and the royalty. In the 19th century, as British Raj developed railways and shipping ports in India, the Silk Route faded away. The Marwaris, till now thriving from trade in silk, opium and jute, soon left for the ports of Calcutta, Bombay and Surat. The World War I had invigorated the economy, and heavy industries were getting cemented. The Marwaris amassed an even greater fortune; that is of course another story.
Many still kept a connection with their homeland. They had built eponymous havelis as a lasting vestige of their affluence.
Mural artists, locally known as ‘chiteras’, were commissioned to paint the facades, the columns and walls in the courtyards, even the insides of the chambers. Natural colours mixed with cow urine were painted over wet lime and mud walls to enhance the life of the frescoes. Over two hundred years, the frescoes captured a brief history of time, the designs reflecting the times and whims of the owners. The art traces back to influences from the Mughal or Persian schools of art. This was followed by inspiration from Jaipur school of art reflecting the shift in patronization of artists fuelled by the decline of the Mughal empire. Then, as British became more prominent in the milieu and economy, the art adapted itself to portray what was in popular currency.
The frescoes could be broadly classified into three styles – decorative – including floral designs, flowers, leaves, birds, horses; portraits- of gods (mostly Hindu, but one haveli had a portrait of Jesus Christ as well), kings, soldiers, and then national leaders which had caught the public imagination – Nehru, Swami Vivekanand; and lastly, descriptive, with scenes from mythology as well as day to day life – Krishna playing holi with ‘gopis’ – his female consorts, an army procession of soldiers and elephants, and as they emerged later, of an Englishman riding a penny farthing, a couple on a hot air balloon, a lady listening to a gramophone. The incredible aspect about the frescoes capturing life of the English is the fact that the artist painting them had never seen or been to these places. They imagined or understood them from the anecdotes shared by the Marwari merchants who had been travelling abroad for trade.
The havelis were built to suit the needs of the business and family. The outer courtyard was meant for visiting traders, a double decked open chamber had the owner occupying the centre cotton mattress, smoking on his hookah and speculating on the value of the merchandise that the traders had gotten along. An attendant sat at the doorway, pulling the strings of the cloth fan that swayed across the ceiling, He was deaf, not meant to convey the secrets of the dealings outside. Then, there were separate inner chambers for advanced stage of negotiations and to sign off deals. Sturdy wooden safes- the treasury- occupied a place of honour in another chamber.
The inner courtyards of the havelis were meant for the women, their only open space in the house and perhaps, in the world. The bigger havelis had a third courtyard, meant to harness the animals that carried the goods. This courtyard faced the road and had entrances high enough to accommodate a camel. The havelis were designed to be inward looking. They were walled on all four sides, but all the courtyards opened up to the sky bringing in light and ventilation. The windows and doorways were embellished with thick ridged wooden doors made of acacia wood and imported Belgian glass fitted in semi-circular cavities at the top.
Later, as the Marwaris moved to the new trading centres and ports, the havelis were left in the hands of the caretakers or the family members that chose to stay behind. With the migrating marwaris, prosperity and patronage diminished and ultimately dissipated. The towns of Nawalgarh and Mandawa fell off the map of any political or economic importance and stayed indifferent to the progress along the twentieth and twenty first centuries.
In the last few decades, tourism has again brought in some attention and money, and the locals have been quick in acclimatizing to the needs. The Mandawa fort has been renovated and rechristened as Castle Mandawa – a luxury hotel, a few havelis have transformed to heritage homestays (“It easily takes a couple of crores to restore”, my homestay owner told me), and the people – adults and children alike – have picked up linguistic proficiency, especially in French and German, as they double up as guides.
But the air of transience still hangs heavy here. The tourists consider it a pit-stop, an overnight stay at best before they move on the more exotic destinations on their itinerary. The caretakers of the havelis interested in the few bucks (some invoked sympathy for their limited means; some more professional promptly handed a receipt) they can make as a price to explore the art inside. The people more excited about the Hindi movie crews that have discovered another ‘stuck in the time warp’ locale and been frequenting to shoot scenes. “A top movie actor had come to see my haveli” gushed an inhabitant, as she showed the exquisite gold leaf painted frescoes in her haveli. And a handful of mural artists – perhaps the last of the generations – have started painting on parchments to sell as a souvenir to tourists. “I do not get more than two to three hundred rupees for painting or touching up a fresco”, an artist sighs as he tries to sell a painting to me in the same breath. And the havelis themselves have let the nature take over – trees have taken root in walls, the plaster is chipping away, the frescoes made a shade lighter each day by the sun.
I must mention the two havelis- one owned by the Poddar family, other owned by the Morarka family – in Nawalgarh which have retained their glory and are fine examples of sustained care and preservation. The frescoes, especially in the Poddar haveli, are detailed, a few even distinct- a portrait which looks at you no matter which direction you are in, an entire train of bogeys departing from a railway station painted on one wall and arriving at a station on the other, a portrait of Radha and Krishna who take on each other’s complexion as they consummate (my interpretation) and become one (how the guide described it).