Some of India’s key business families of the 20th century have come from the Shekhawati region, about 100km north of Jaipur. Names such as Birla, Dalmia, Poddar, Morarka and Jhunjhunwala emerged from this region.
Situated on a branch of the Silk Route that connected to the port of Khambat (then Cambay), this region was apparently well known for traders who dealt in high volumes at low margins. In the middle of the 19th century, with trade weakening on the Silk Route branch through Rajasthan to the port of Khambat, and the strengthening of the new British ports of Mumbai and Kolkata, the traders began moving to other parts of the country, initially going east towards Bihar and Bengal. Later, they would fan out to other parts of the country, including Delhi and Mumbai.
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Though it was initially the men who travelled, leaving families behind, over time entire families began to move. The houses remained. Many of the them have since been falling into ruin. Others are better preserved.
Most havelis are developed on the same basic plan, yet each feels different. Apart from variations in size, height and orientation to the sun, it is the difference in the artwork on walls that distinguishes one from the other.
The havelis are usually two storeys and sit like tall boxes on the street edge. Together, they form distinctive “street walls” on both sides, especially in precincts such as Aath Haveli (eight havelis) in Nawalgarh, where they form a gated enclave. The flat, tall and continuous walls could have been daunting. Instead, the intricate, multicoloured frescoes turn them into surfaces of wonder, covered with all manner of figures, objects, motifs and fantasies.
Like the Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh, where conservation efforts have been made, most havelis are organized around two internal courtyards and often have an open yard at the back for service. A tall and elaborately carved wooden door provides an imposing entry through the two-storeyed street wall of the haveli, letting us into the public courtyard. A formal reception room and an informal internal veranda open into this courtyard, which was the domain of the men, since most public and business visitors would be entertained in this zone. The walls of this courtyard were often more lavishly decorated with frescoes, the subjects differing from those in the inner courtyard.
The inner courtyard—meant for the women and their household activities—was approached through a lobby space which ensured its privacy while allowing sound to travel. The kitchen (and a small closet for water pots), stores and other utilitarian spaces opened into this space. Most of the bustle of everyday life must have been focused in this courtyard as the private rooms on the upper floors were also usually accessed from here.
THE ART OF FRESCOES
As women were restricted to the private sphere, and were considered guardians of tradition, the frescoes in the inner courtyard usually dealt with religious and mythological themes. This probably also reflected the sense of insecurity in a patriarchal society where men were often away for long periods on work in far-off places.
It was thus left to the artwork in the public courtyard—the realm of the Shekhawati men—to explore the hybrid and aspirational modern imagination, sparked through extensive travel and interaction with the ruling British officials.
Way of life: Art is an everyday matter for locals in Shekhawati. Walls such as these form the backdrop for every casual walk down the street, every outdoor and indoor activity. For visitors, a stroll can provide much to stop and stare at. Himanshu Burte /Mint
The painted havelis of Shekhawati are famous for the way traditional and modern motifs coexist and even intermingle. At the Poddar haveli in Nawalgarh, for instance, the guide tells you that the train on the inner façade of the outer courtyard was commissioned on public demand in 1902 by the owner, long before the railway line came to the town. A painter was sent specifically to record a train in Mumbai, and produced this well-observed “document” in a traditional style. Elsewhere, as at the Kedia haveli in Fatehpur, the traditional and the modern mix with greater daring. A couple (Radha and Krishna?) are shown enjoying a drive in the “latest model” of an early 20th century car. And in the same haveli, Sita’s Ashok Vatika is a neoclassical garden straight out of Europe.
The famous Indian capacity for assimilation is at play here too. If a large number of contemporary connoisseurs find these hybrid havelis attractive, maybe contemporary Indian architects—trying to be more Western than the West—can take inspiration from the craftsmen who built these havelis and seek ways of assimilating the best of the old with the most attractive of the new.
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