The strange and gorgeous walls of Shekhawati Havelis.
Till now you might have seen Shekhawati Havelis without even noticing that you have seen Shekhawati Haveli. Perhaps in movies or most probably on Instagram where some beautiful models are posing on the background of grungy walls of these old buildings.
When you hear the word ‘Havelis’ it evokes certain memories in mind. Perhaps about Karan Arjun or Amrish Puri. But Shekhawati haveli is nowhere close to that. These monuments are a unique form of artwork that emerged at this quint region of Rajasthan known as the Shekhawati area.
Let’s first understand what is the Shekhawati region.
Shekhawati region is situated in the northeast part of Rajasthan. Three districts fall under the belt of Shekhawati — Churu, Sikar, Jhunjhunu. This area is famous for the old beautiful buildings which are known as Havelis.
One of the major sites of Havelis in the Shekhawati region is -Mandawa, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Mukandgarah, Ramgarh, Churu. What makes these buildings unique and interesting is the design of wall paintings and its architectural style. Contents of these paintings are as diverse as it can get. Under the same building, one can find depictions of themes like mythology, aristocracy, local folk tale, smoking Jesus, even wicked erotica ( Queen Victoria is depicted performing intercourse with King Alexander).
A quick history
Havelis came into existence in the late 18th century. Shekhawati region of Rajasthan has a very strong number of Baniya community/ Merchant community which is collectively known as Marwaris. (Plot twist: Not all Rajasthanis are Marwari).
With the opening of the Delhi-Calcutta railway route in 1860, thousands of Marwaris from this region spread all over to states like Assam, Bengal, Orissa. Especially Calcutta became the headquarter of Marwari capital amassed through cotton, jute, oilseeds, opium trade. Among many other reasons, one reason for the huge migration of the Marwari population was the unfair taxes levied by the rulers of Bikaner and Jaipur. No matter what the reason was but migration proved to be boon for the community in terms of wealth.
The community prospered and how. Their level of prosperity can be gauged by the fact that out of 101 top business houses present, 27 are from the Shekhawati Marwari community.
Since the community members wanted something to give back to their birthplace they decided to put some share of wealth to the region where they were born. This is how Haveli came into existence.
A number of Havelis were created which became the symbol of Marwari identity in the Shekhawati region. In Fact, these creations can be a product of envy and competition with other communities. Precisely Rajput community.
One of the largest communities of Rajasthan is Rajput. Rajput rulers were always involved in expanding their cultural heritage in the form of Paintings, monuments, buildings. Before the 18th century, the association of Art with the Marwari community was never heard of. Havelis became the first artistic symbol of their community.
Havelis were to Marwaris what forts were to Rajputs. Most of the painters who painted the walls of these Havelis came from the Rajput barons and this is the reason for the similarity in the style.
The walls of these Havelis are filled with beautiful wall paintings where various themes are being explored. Most of them were being made by using the Frescos technique. This is a very unique technique of painting.
Fresco is the style in which the artist paints the walls in the moist form i.e. at the time when fresh plaster is applied on the wall. Colors will get absorbed in the surface of the wall and the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. This is the reason behind the durability of these paintings which are there even after so many years.
It is evident by the fact that some of the wall paintings of these Havelis have been destroyed because of weather conditions and bad maintenance but the walls where fresco techniques were used are still alive and visible.
These walls serve as the canvas for a variety of paintings. Let’s have a look at what is being painted on the wall.
Almost every Haveli has the largest number of paintings about Radha and Krishana. They are projected doing playful activities like swinging, cuddling each other, or combing hairs. Rass Leela has been the popular theme in these paintings where Krishana is seen having good time with Gopis. There are also paintings of Krishana holding Mount Vrindavan on his finger , birth of Krishna, Krishna killing Pootna by sucking her breasts , Krishna dancing on Kaliya.
Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata: The important events of these two epics are drawn on the wall. Especially the paintings associated with Ramayana hold the largest portions of many Havelis.
Mythological Gods: The Hindu trinity ‘ Brahma Vishnu Mahesh ‘is depicted on the walls of Havelis. Vishnu is mostly depicted resting on sheesha under the group of snakes, his wife Laxmi is seen pressing his feet. Through Vishnu’s navel, a lotus flower is seen coming out, on which Vishnu is seen resting. Shiv is presented in different forms which include Nilkantha Avataar and Ardhanarishvara Avatara.
At Poddar Haveli in Nawalgarh, I met an artist who created an Ardhanarishvara avatar of Vishnu and Laxmi. He claims that such Ardhnarishwar has never been painted anywhere.
There are some more examples of unusual depictions where Artist has taken the liberty of creative imagination. In the picture below painted at Jivrajka Haveli, Nawalgarh, Artist has painted Hanuman driving the carriage, and passengers are Krishana, his wife Rukmani, and Rama’s brother Lakshmana. This is of course cross fusion of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Pure fantasy on an artist.
In the court of Poddar Haveli, there is an interesting Painting where Shiv -Paravati are riding on Nandi ( bull) and another mythological couple is seen riding on elephants. In the modern-day context, this can be seen as Marvel’s Avengers of Hindu gods.
Below is the picture was taken from Surajmal Banthia Haveli at Churu. This takes freedom of imagination to a different level where Jesus is seen smoking a cigar.
Depiction of British: The colonial period often termed the ‘golden age’ for the Marwaris, gave a tremendous boost to the fortunes of Marwaris. The British rulers actively involved Banias to expand their business. It gave these merchants stability which was missing in the earlier princely rule. British officers used to visit the Havelis in the Shekhawati region, thus painting them on the walls may have been an exercise to impress them, or perhaps it was a gesture of hospitality.
Local love stories of Rajasthan- Havelis walls possess a staggering diversity. Local Rajasthani folk tales were also given space at the Haveli wall. One of the most famous love stories of Rajasthan is the story of Dhola Maru. Another popular love story of Rajasthan is the story about Prithvi Raj Chauhan and Sanyogita. There is an interesting love story about Binjo and Sarnath. It is said that Binjo plays Veena so well that his young aunt named Sarnath fell in love with him. They are depicted in various wall paintings where Binjo is playing veena and Sarnath is seen dancing on it.
Influence of Modern society — Till now in the name of vehicles only animals like Horse, elephant, were used ( or maybe cart). But later on, 20th-century influence can be seen in the paintings. Vehicles like cars and bicycles started to make their position on the wall. On the wall of Poddar Haveli in Nawalgarh, there is the painting of a train. It is said that it was painted during the time when the first train in India arrived. It was a spectacular event that created a buzz all over the country and the Shekhawati region was no different. It is said that to capture that spectacle of the first train, the artist went to Mumbai to see the train. He captured what he saw there on the wall of the Haveli and the result was this painting which is seen below.
Erotica: Erotica is another theme that features on the walls and bedroom. Though they were intentionally designed at interior places so it becomes difficult to spot them. There are some paintings of naked women and some are more explicit where couples are depicted in the middle of sexual activities.
Some of the scenes where the couples were portrayed having sex were destroyed at the Ladia haveli in the Mandawa in 1984. What’s most wired is the depiction of themes of bestiality. A representation of males having sex with an animal.
Above is a painting at the Nawalgarh where a man is seen having sex with a donkey. A man behind him is about to hit him with the shoes. In a Shiv Narayan Haveli at Churi Ajeetgarh sex scenes of the Royal family are depicted in the bedroom. In one painting Queen Victoria is seen having sex with King Alexandra.
What is the reason behind these paintings is not quite known. Are these random paintings made by a wacky artist high on life or is there any deeper meaning behind the painting?
The current state of Haveli
Most businessmen have migrated from the Shekhawati Region. These Havelis are now abandoned and left in the hands of caretakers appointed by Marwaris. Some have been converted into tourist spots and many have transformed into Heritage hotels.
Apart from the popular ones, most of them are in a sorry state because of the bad maintenance. There have been attempts of renovation but it is only limited to a few Havelis. Some years back a French artist named Nadine le Prince bought a Haveli in Fatehpur which is now known as Nadine le Prince Haveli. It is no wonder that right now it is the most well preserved Haveli of that region.
Havelis are a unique fusion of rarefied art and kitsch design. Some of the paintings borrow from western aesthetics whereas some from Rajputana style. Nothing was considered too trivial to paint and that might be the reason behind such a wide variety of themes in these buildings. When seen in its entirety one can understand that it captures the rhythm and vibe of the Shekhawati region. Here nonsense exists with the sense. Sacred with profane. High art with low art. A unique amalgamation of carefreeness and the pure joy of creation.