Book Review: The Painted Towns of Shekhawati

I am usually inspired to read about a place after a visit there; I have also been known to pick up something to read once I have decided to visit a place. As for packing my bags and heading to a destination after reading about it? Never, though I have added a destination to a mental list of places to visit.

Did I just say never? Actually, that has now changed to ‘just once’ when I visited the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan after reading a book about its painted havelis or mansions in January this year. The Painted Towns of Shekhawati by Ilay Cooper was a serendipitous find, and I want to first share how I found the book with you before telling you what the book is all about.

The Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Book Art Book, Ilay CooperIt was a rainy August day in 2014 and I was feeling quite sorry for myself at that time. All my travel plans were falling through for some reason or the other, which meant that I hadn’t travelled anywhere that year.

A casual twitter conversation with a friend on the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) got me thinking about attending the festival in 2015 and maybe combining it with some travel to places around Jaipur.

A simple Google search threw up Shekhawati as a possible place to visit. A little deeper search and book on The Painted Towns of Shekhawati popped up. Though I was aware of the painted havelis in Shekhawati, I was more than a little sketchy on the details. The book intrigued me enough to place an order and the book was in my hands a few days later.

The first thing I did after reading the book was to apply for leave at work, write out a tentative itinerary, and book the hotel and flight tickets (not necessarily in this order). Yes, I had decided to go to Shekhawati after reading the book.

So what was in the book that got me all set to travel to Shekhawati?

All in good time. First, a little background on how the book came to be written. It’s a story that you may have heard of before or read a variation of, but it is important to understand the origin and context of this book to fully appreciate its contents.

In 1971, the author — Ilay Cooper (who is British) — got talking to an Indian co-passenger on a long train journey in India. As it usually happens in India, Cooper got invited to visit Suresh’s (the co-passenger) native village in Narnaund in Haryana. Cooper accepted the invitation and the next time he was in India (1972) he made his way to Narnaund. Over the next few weeks, he explored the region, which included forays into the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. That’s when he came across the enormous havelis, which “spoke of great wealth… [and were] covered with bright figurative paintings” (pg.7). Cooper was intrigued by the havelis and when he searched for information he didn’t find anything. Worse, no one seemed to be aware of their existence outside the region.

Cooper returned to India in 1975 and explored Shekhawati once again with ever-increasing interest. In the years that followed, he continued to visit and write articles on Shekhawati, including in the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. In 1984, following a seminar organised by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Cooper was asked to document the painted buildings as a first step towards conservation. Over the next 3 years, through fund cuts from INTACH, media hostility and an indifferent bureaucracy, Cooper meticulously documented the region. When the project finished in June 1987, Cooper had

described and photographed 2260 buildings, most of them painted havelis. (pg. 9).

That documentation, which was submitted to INTACH, still awaits publication.

Based on the work that he had done, Cooper decided to write a book on Shekhawati himself and The Painted Towns of Shekhawati (Prakash Books, 2009, pp.216) was the result. The book is a richly detailed and lovingly catalogued book of the painted havelis and associated structures in 36 towns and 3 districts of Rajasthan. Though the cover mentions that the book is “A Ready Reference Guide”, it is much more than that.

The book is divided into two broad sections. The first section (pg.1-99) has the Foreword, Acknowledgement and 8 chapters that give an introduction to the Shekhawati region, its colourful history, the havelis and their owners, the painters and the decorators, the process of painting the havelis, and the subject of the paintings.

The second section (pg.100-216) is what Cooper calls ‘The Guide’ and this contains detailed descriptions of the painted havelis in 36 towns of Shekhawati presented in alphabetical order. The history and condition of the havelis in each town is also given and the text is supported with photographs, drawings and maps drawn by Cooper himself. A glossary, bibliography and a list of suggested hotels to stay in the various towns have also been included in this section.

I liked the book in its entirety, but the first section was particularly fascinating and that is what made me choose to visit Shakhawati. The history of the region, the intrigue, the caste-based society, lawlessness, the migration of the banias or traders to other cities, construction of the havelis, the subject of the paintings — the traditional, contemporary and the bizarre — ensured that I went back to the book whenever I was free till I finished reading it. The book is exhaustive in details and Cooper has tried to look at the buildings through various lens — architecture, painting style, and state of preservation. You can sense his wonder at the grand havelis, share his delight at the subject of the paintings, and feel his despair at the colossal neglect and decay. In that sense, the reader is with Cooper all the way.

The second section is like a guidebook and, I must admit that reading this section did get monotonous. But on the field this section was invaluable and helped ensure that I did not miss out on seeing the highlights of the havelis in the towns that I visited. ‘The Guide’ section was also not always correct, but to be fair to Cooper, it wasn’t really his fault. In the two odd decades since the documentation, some havelis have vanished, some have been painted over, and the landmarks mentioned in the maps have shifted — for example, in Fatehpur the bus stand had shifted by more than a kilometer and quite obviously, I could not orient myself correctly. Also, since Cooper’s maps are not to scale distances were difficult to calculate. Another irritant with the book — and here the publisher is at fault — is that the maps, photographs and text of a city are not placed together. So one could be reading about Fatehpur with a map of Jhunjhunu and photographs of Laxmangarh next to the text !

Cooper’s writing style is simple, but dry and not everyone may be able to appreciate it. As a lover of art and not a trained artist, the wealth of information presented in the book proved invaluable. Cooper’s observations and comments acted as a field guide and enhanced my visit to the region greatly. One might say for argument’s sake, that I would still have enjoyed my trip to Shekhawati without having read the book. Certainly, but having that little bit of background information added to the experience I had and the knowledge I gained. Whether you are an artist or a layperson like me, Cooper’s book is a must read especially if you are planning to visit Shekhawati.

I was often asked by curious locals in the towns of Shekhawati as to how I had heard of the region and why I was visiting it (apparently not many Indians are interested in the painted havelis). I would usually start by saying,

“You know I read a book on the havelis of Shekhawati by…”

“…Ilay Cooper. Yes, we know,” they would complete with a smile.

In Fatepur, the same conversation was played out, but with an added line: Oh ! You just missed meeting him. He was here yesterday !

So yes, Ilay Cooper is pretty famous, his book is too. Just my bad luck that I missed meeting him. 😦


PS. In case you are wondering, if I visited the JLF, yes I did. But instead of attending the full festival as I had originally planned, I attended just one day. I was too busy exploring Shekhawati, you see. All thanks to Ilay Cooper and his book.

25 thoughts on “Book Review: The Painted Towns of Shekhawati

    1. I can’t tell you how happy this comment made me, Prasad. Thank you so much for your appreciation. I hope you will like the posts in the Shekhawati series that I will be writing soon.

      PS: When are you visiting Shekhawati?

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  1. You know you make me depressed sometimes with such travel related stuff because I might never visit these places 😦 But then reading such posts also make me feel good that I can at least travel virtually. Pardon me for referring to this post as a travel post despite it being a book review, but it has so much of ‘ travel’ content in it 🙂 I might have read the book (borrowing from you, of course :D) but your observation about it being dry makes me wonder if I will have the patience to read it. The history part does seem interesting.

    Bring on the posts on the Shekhawati region! Can’t wait to read your eye view of the places!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always travel when I read to the realm / time/ place/ era/setting of the book. If it is a travel book then all the more better. And when I actually get to travel because of a book, its the best kind of book. 😀

      The history of Shekhawati is very interesting and I have decided to write a separate post on it to set the context for the posts on the individual towns that I will be writing about. The Shekhawati series will start in June on the blog. Hope to see your comments there as well. 🙂

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  2. I too have this book but I did not know I had it till I was shown a copy at the Mandawa castle and I quickly borrowed it to take some pictures on my digital camera of the maps for reference when travelling in the Shekhawati region. It is a great work of art and history and even though some of it is not so accurate now due to the reasons you have rightly mentioned, it is still worth buying just for the wealth of information and pictures that could be lost forever due to painting over the originals.

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    1. Et tu, Aadil? 🙂

      It’s amazing how many people this book has influenced into visiting or exploring the Shekhawati region. I am going to guard and hold on to this book real tight.

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  3. I’m officially smitten with that book cover! Your review has convinced me to not only try picking up a copy of Cooper’s book, but also visit Shekhawati whenever I get a chance. I get that the ‘guide’ part may turn out to be a little dry, but I think I would find it intriguing to see which havelis managed to stand the test of time (and commercialisation!) and which didn’t. Thanks for an absolutely wonderful post. 🙂

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    1. The guide part is dry, but once you are in the field, it is not too bad; in fact is a great aid while walking about the towns of Shekhawati. I hope that whenever the book is revised next, the shortcomings are corrected. The book will be just perfect then.

      Thank you very much, Ami, for your words of appreciation. I hope that you will enjoy reading my posts on Shekhawati, which I plan to write next month. I also hope that it’ll tempt you to just pack your bags and head towards that region. 🙂

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  4. There is a travel page on Facebook called Reboot that has been focusing on Shekhawati for quite some time, now (the last month, for sure). They, and now, you and your post have put the region at the top of my travel list 🙂 Waiting to see more posts and pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, MM. Shekhawati seems to be waking up if the write-ups and blog posts are to be believed. Rarely a week goes by without seeing some mention of the place. I’m not sure if I am suddenly noticing these articles because of my visit there or if the region has suddenly come into focus.

      Will be resuming the Shekhawati posts in June. Till then it will be a mix of this and that. 🙂

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    1. Hello Santhi. So good to see you here. Welcome to “My Favourite Things” 🙂

      Ilay Cooper’s book is a compelling read, especially the history. It is not very well written, but that does not take away the passion, sincerity and commitment to the book’s topic. THAT is what got me hooked and, of course, the frescoes.

      I have already written about 4 of the 7 painted towns that I visited in Shekhawati. You can check them out if interested. 🙂

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