Paintings are a common expression in Rajasthan, and everything from village huts, simply decorated with a plaster of cow dung paste and lime, to the wall paintings found in palaces echo this. However, if there is one region that stands our 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 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. 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.
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.
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 procession, of caparisoned elephants, of celebrated lovers such as Dhola and Maru, even trompe l’oeil paintings that created a suspension of belief in disbelief.
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 amusing 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.
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. 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. These are the true treasures of Rajasthan’s open air art gallery.
However, the following list of towns will indicate where most of the better known havelis and frescos are to be found:
ALSISAR-MALSISAR – Adjacent towns, distinguished by the blue and red colour of their frescos.
BAGAR – Only a few painted havelis, and that too in the later style showing the degeneration of the art.
CHURI AJITGARH – Painted havelis include one known particularly for its erotic art.
CHURU – Though strictly not a part of the Shekhawati region, it has havelis that are characterized as much by their brilliant paintings as their flamboyant architecture.
DUNDLOD – Also a heritage hotel, it has some nice haveli and chhatri frescos.
FATEHPUR – One of the richest sources for observing some of the finest art in the region.
JHUNJHUNU – Better known for its Sati temple, and for the large size of its havelis, it too has examples of frescos.
LAKSHMANGARH – Planned on the formal city layout of Jaipur, it has a lot of whimsical subjects painted on its impressive havelis.
MAHANSAR – The finest interiors painted in the region can be found here in a former jeweller’s showroom, and are rich in their use of colours and gilding.
MANDAWA – The heart of the region for many, with a castle that is a premier heritage hotel. Well known for its frescos.
MUKUNDGARH – Also the site for a heritage hotel, a small settlement which is easy to walk around when viewing fresco art.
NAWALGARH – A very large number of havelis and a profusion of fresco art; also a heritage hotel.
PARASRAMPURA – Historical and religious frescos abound.
RAMGARH – The most profusely painted of the Shekhawati towns.