Budding mango trees tremble from the embrace of rising vines
Brindaban forest is washed by meandering Jamuna river waters
When spring’s mood is rich, Hari roams here
To dance with young women, friend –
A cruel time for deserted lovers.
Jayadeva’s song evokes the potent memory of Hari’s feet,
Colouring the forest in springtime mood heightened by Love’s presence.
– From the 12th century poem, Gitagovinda, by Jayadeva (translated by Barbara Stoller Miller)
The lush groves of Vrindavan reverberate with Krishna’s springtime Raas Lila with gopis. The river Yamuna snakes its way around Radha and Krishna lost in enchanted communion. Colours fly and Holi arrives amidst a playful pichkari battle. And so a vibrant spring pays a virtual visit to a clutch of dry and dusty villages and towns abutting the Thar Desert. Such is the transcendental power of art!
In the region of Shekhawati, which includes parts of Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts in Rajasthan, a unique artistic experience awaits the curious traveller. For here, on the walls and roofs of forts, palaces, and havelis (courtyard houses), are painted the most stunning, intricate murals on a wide range of subjects but most of all, the sacred lives of gods.
The Rajput rulers and chiefs of the area constructed the forts and palaces, while members of the Marwari trading community built the notable havelis. In the nineteenth century, the latter began migrating to trading hubs like Mumbai and Kolkata, where they flourished. They retained strong ties with their roots, though, and ploughed back portions of their profits to create these magnificent havelis in the towns and villages they had left behind.
Though other parts of Rajasthan, notably Jaipur, have much older painted architectural wonders than the havelis, there is something about their homeliness that renders their murals more immediate and familiar. Particularly from the perspective of the present, where most of us live in impersonal, standard buildings made by others, to step into a nineteenth or early twentieth century haveli in Chirawa, Mandawa or Mukundgarh, is like entering an alternative dimension where art was an essential and integral aspect of life.
Unlike forts and palaces that needed to stand aloof from the habitations of common people, the havelis were situated in the middle of town, with their doors opening out into the street. Typically, they comprised a series of courtyards with rooms set around them. The first or outer courtyard was where the men received visitors in a baithak to transact business or for a chat. It led into an inner courtyard, which was the women’s preserve. They would get together to cook, wash clothes, comb their hair, and on festive occasions, to sing, dance and chitchat. Here there would be a tulsi plant, worshipped daily, and adjoining rooms would include a kitchen, a water storage facility, a shrine, and bedrooms. From the inner courtyard, the women would peep out into the men’s world through latticed windows.
The havelis of Shekhawati wear their art on their sleeve, quite literally since many have outer walls painted with splendid processions, caparisoned elephants, and marching armies. In some places, railway engines make an appearance. The entrance invariably has Ganesha, the lord of auspicious beginnings. Though interestingly, at the entrance to the Koolwal Haveli in Nawalgarh, it is a ‘multitasking’ woman who greets visitors, as she fixes her bindi in a mirror with one hand while holding a breastfeeding infant with the other.
Religious themes predominate, including scenes from the epics and popular mythological stories. In India, ever so often, boundaries between the divine and the mundane soften and melt away. So, gods and goddesses are treated as immediate and near, who can be bathed, dressed, fed, sung to, and put to sleep, just like human beings. Devotees recount their stories, at times introducing new layers and meanings to suit their frames of mind and the occasion. A deeply emotional bond exists between the worshipped and the worshipper, which is both delineated and deepened by the kind of proximity between the two one finds in the painted havelis. One cannot help but wonder about the creation of god in the image of man here!
Of course, there are other intriguing elements in the narratives on the walls of the havelis. Folktales like Dhola-Maru jostle with European-style angels and plump cherubs with wings. And Jesus joins the gods of the Indian pantheon in at least one instance – at the Morarka Haveli in Nawalgarh. In other havelis, built in the first half of the twentieth century, one finds Mahatma Gandhi amidst paintings of ancestors and local rulers. Perhaps the act of painting somebody into a mural was one way of elevating them, deifying them by putting them on a wall, so to speak.
Sadly, most of the havelis of Shekhawati are in a state of disrepair, except for a few that have been turned into museums or hotels. In towns like Mukundgarh, an entire section comprising old havelis, wells, temples and lanes lies decrepit, which could be turned into a world-class heritage site. To preserve Shekhawati as an artistic oasis requires quick thinking and collective action. Else, spring will no longer perfume the desert, the koel of longing will fly away, and Krishna’s flute will fall silent, along with Radha’s anklets. And the possibility of enduring enchantment that art brought to everyday living spaces would be lost forever.