The painted towns of Shekhawati-1: Nawalgarh

Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to an extraordinary place, and I had to wait for nearly six months before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions. This post on Nawalgarh is the second of eight posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read this introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further.


Nawalgarh was my base for exploring the Shekhawati region and also the first of the towns I visited. Named after Nawal Singh, its founder, Nawalgarh was built in 1737 on the site of an earlier settlement.

Nawal Singh followed an active policy of encouraging traders and merchants from Jaipur to settle down in Nawalgarh. The Patodia and Murarka families were the first to arrive on his invitation and seeing them grow and prosper, other merchants soon followed. By the mid-1800s, Nawalgarh had become a large and prosperous town with three forts, city walls, bastions and four gates to protect it.

I arrived in Nawalgarh on a cold and rainy winter’s day in January, in time for a late lunch at my hotel before heading off to explore the town. It was a leisurely stroll through the town’s markets, lanes and bylanes with the purpose to get a feel of what had brought me to Nawalgarh (and for that matter the Shekhawati region) in the first place — the painted havelis or mansions.

Nawalgarh, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan
Entrance to the Sheth Anandram Jaipuria Haveli. Unlike other havelis where the background colour is beige, the walls of this haveli are green

Nawalgarh, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanEven though I was aware that there would be a fair number of painted havelis with frescoes, their profusion was staggering. Everywhere I looked there were frescoes — faded or obscured under layers of grime and dust, hidden behind rubble and rubbish piles, barely visible under a layer of whitewash, partly obliterated by repair work, or gleaming after a restoration process. It was a sensory delight in the best possible way.

I walked around Nawalgarh in a kind of daze. Looking back, I’m surprised that I didn’t fall into a ditch or an open sewer or get knocked down by a vehicle, or get chased by dogs or cows, or step into dung piles 😛

Over the next few days, as I explored Nawalgarh and other towns and villages of Shekhawati, the sensory overload lessened and I was able to deconstruct and understand the paintings better — their themes, their styles, their colours — and see the links and patterns and make connections. While some of the themes, especially those from Hindu mythology and mytho history, were instantly recognisable, some others like local folk tales and portraits were not. A visit to the two haveli-turned-museums in Nawalgarh went a long way in helping me build a perspective towards understanding theart of the painted havelis in the region.

Nawalgarh, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan

The first was Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum, also known as the Podar Haveli. Built in 1902, the Podar Haveli is over 100 feet long and is supposed to have 750 frescoes on its outer walls, passages, two courtyards and all the rooms in the lower level. The Podar Haveli is considered to have some of the finest collection of frescoes in the region.

The Podar Haveli is built over two levels, with the upper level being a later addition. Both the levels are quite distinct from one another — while the lower level is traditional Indian architecture with Mughal influences and is covered with colourful frescoes, the upper level has a colonial influence with very few frescoes and that too in pastel shades.

In 1992, work on restoration and conservation work was undertaken on the damaged frescoes under the supervision of experts in the field. This included retouching or repainting the most damaged frescoes.

Nawalgarh, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanThe second museum I visited was the Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum, which was built in 1900 by Jairamdasji Morarka. Though smaller than the Podar Haveli, the frescoes at the Morarka Haveli are no less detailed and coluorful.

The Morarka Haveli frescoes, too, have undergone carefully planned restoration but very different from the Podar Haveli. Regardless of the extent of damage to a fresco, no attempt was done to retouch or repaint the frescoes and were were only cleaned. Depending on the extent of damage, the cleaning was either done with plain water and sponge or with a mild chemical solution. The result is original work on display and combined with stained glass panels, glass and mirror work in its courtyards, the Morarka Haveli is quite stunning.

I also visited the Bhagaton ki Haveli, which provided a study in contrast to the museums as the frescoes in this haveli have neither been cleaned or restored. Some of the frescoes were suprisingly well preserved and some badly damaged. Like the Podar and Morarka Havelis, this one too had a grand entrance, two courtyards, a public area, a private family area and living quarters for the family on the upper level. Though I would have liked to visit other havelis in Nawalgarh, I could only see them from the outside as they were either locked or simply looked too unsafe to go in. 😦

Presenting a set of 50 photographs from the painted havelis of Nawalgarh. They cover religious themes, portraits, transport, Europeans, architectural styles, etc. Clicking on any of the captioned photographs will start a slide show. Though you can start from any photograph, I recommend that you start with the first photo. And once you have finished seeing the photos, don’t forget to come back to read the rest of the post. 🙂

Nawalgarh gave me the perfect introduction to the painted havelis of Shekhawati. The variety of themes, styles and subjects of the frescoes ensured that there was an element of discovery and delight every time I came across a wall filled with frescoes.

And yet, while Nawalgarh’s past delighted me, its present disturbed me. And I don’t only mean the state of the crumbling havelis here. Let me elaborate.

Nawalgarh is incredibly filthy and negotiating its lanes and bylanes on foot was a challenge, to put it mildly. It didn’t help that it rained for most of the time that I was there and I had to wade literally wade through unrecognisable and unmentionable stuff to reach some of the havelis. There are no civic systems in place; not once during my stay did I see the streets being cleaned. The rubbish and refuse piles though only grew larger. Nawalgarh reminded me of a lotus pond with the havelis as the lotuses in various stages of bloom or decay in a stagnant, stinky pool with things lurking beneath.

For a town that depends on tourists for a large part of its economy, it has a long way to go.


Notes:

  1. Nawalgarh is about 145 km from Jaipur and a 3-hour drive. One can also drive down from Delhi.
  2. With the exception of the two museums mentioned in the post, most of the havelis are locked up and empty. Some have just been abandoned while some have caretakers who will allow you to see them for a small fee. For your own safety, I would advise extreme caution in deciding to enter such havelis.
  3. While most caretakers/watchmen of the havelis will ask for a token amount upfront before you see the haveli, some may not. In such cases, I would suggest that you pay them something when you leave.

Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as I explore Shekhawati and other places.

The Painted Towns of Shekhawati Series: Introduction | Nawalgarh | Dundlod | Mandawa | Lakshmangarh | Fatehpur | Bissau | Mahensar

Other Shekhawati-related posts: The Shekhawati trip planner | The painter of murals | Messages on the wall: The graffiti of Nawalgarh | The stepwell at Lohargal | The garbage well |


35 thoughts on “The painted towns of Shekhawati-1: Nawalgarh

  1. Superb post Sudha. Each photo is amazing, and I can only imagine what the originals would be like, esp when they were painted!!! so difficult to decide which i liked the most. just one small thing.. the churning of the ocean of milk could also be a depiction of Kurma avatar, considering that you have also posted matsya and vamana avatars along with it. each seems to depict the story rather than just the avatar. a very interesting depiction, and if i have to choose, this series would be my favourite!!! also, the indra and shiva meeting…. i have seen the depiction of cow and elephant intertwined in south indian temples, but here again, it seems to take the depiction further to the story behind it. fascinating!!!

    Seeing these paintings made me wonder – they were painted by local artisans. were they shown photos of what they were expected to paint? was it their imagination alone? how did they decide what to paint? even considering that the depictions are either representations of local events and happenings, folk tales or myths, the depiction itself seems to be different. was it the artisans who decided what to paint or was it the masters who showed them their ideas? or was there someone else who helped them? i am itching to go to nawalgarh now, and all because of you! and before i go, i want to read the book too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you very much, Anu. The original frescoes would probably have glowed with life I think.

      In response to some of the points you have raised:

      (i) “the churning of the ocean of milk could also be a depiction of Kurma avatar”. This is entirely possible. I did think of it, but since the dashavatar panels are not in one place and scattered all over the haveli, I preferred to look at it as a depiction of the churning of the ocean of milk. Also not all dashavatar panels are present. On an unrelated note, I was fascinated as to how the Matsya and Kurma avatar was depicted so commonly in the frescoes at the Shekhawati havelis. In the sculptures that I saw during my North Gujarat trip, Matsya and Kurma were missing.

      (ii) Paintings and painters. Ilay Cooper says that the haveli owners used to bring back books and posters with them to give to their painters. Sunil, the guide at Podar Haveli said that some painters were sent to cities to observe city life and then paint the pictures. I think the paintings were a result of the imagination of the painters, the pictures given to them by the haveli owners and their travels to cities. Its anybody’s guess who decided what would be painted where. Maybe the painters had a free hand in this or maybe the owners decided what was to be painted where. What is clear from the variety of styles one gets to see in Nawalgarh and other painted towns in Shekhawati is that there were many painters and the late 19th and early 20th centuries must have been a golden period for them.

      You must visit Nawalgarh and other places in Shekhawati as well. Your itch to travel there will probably get translated to actually going there by the time I’m through with the series. Its only fair that I warn you. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post Sudha. the Shekawati series I think may turn out to be your ” this year’s best’. You seem to have done elaborate research before the trip as well; and of course, as you went along your way. Were these frescoes/paintings commissioned or did the painters decide what to paint? Were they done over different time periods? The slide show is brilliant and the ones from the Bhagaton Ki Haveli left me spell bound. I also see you have graduated to a Canon 600D. Congratulations on all counts. Waiting for more. This has been worth waiting for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, thank you so much, Jayanti.

      I think the painters or a group of painters were commissioned to paint a haveli. That much is evident in Podar Haveli, where the different styles are simply mind-boggling. In spite of some of the frescoes being repainted over, the variety in style is still discernible. As for the subject of the painting, I think that it would have been a mix of what the owner wanted and what the painters wanted to paint. The paintings were roughly done between 1875 to 1940. In some cases, if there was a marriage in the family, the older paintings were removed and newer ones done.

      I have been using a Canon600D for over a year now. Still getting comfortable with it though. Hope to complete the Shekhawati series by mid-July. As for this being the year’s best, it certainly feels like it now. But its only June now, and there is travel in the offing, which means more writing. Who knows, that might turn out to be better ! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You mean, the one of Jesus Christ inside the Morarka Haveli, right? I debated between using that one and the one that I have shared in the post. While the other one was a better picture, the one in the post had a cross in the front, which clinched the choice for me.

      When did you visit Shekhawati? I’m so looking forward to your comments in the series. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        1. There are two Jesus Christ paintings at the Morarka Haveli. The first is outside the haveli, under the eaves, and is the one included in the slideshow in the post. The second is in one of the bedrooms of the haveli.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful post. And I loved the images too. Tourism really needs some motivation in India. Or soon, we may lose this heritage too. And from what you have written, forget a long way to go, they have to make a start atleast to get the place up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The two Museums in Nawalgarh, a haveli in Dundlod and a couple of havelis in Fatehpur are probably the only ones which are being looked after. The rest are slowly and literally falling aprt or disappearing. One of the reasons is all the havelis are private properties and it must be very expensive to take care of and maintain them. The current owners are far removed from Shekhawati and their heritage, which must be more of a burden for them.

      Though Shekhawati receives tourists, it cannot match the rest of Rajasthan. Infrastructure is poor and apart from the painted havelis, some temples, and a bird sanctuary it does not offer much variety. It is important that Shekhawati positions itself as a niche place for Art Travel and attract people interested in the topic. But for that the havelis need to be there. So yes, it is a vicious cycle.

      The government can only do so much. The local people and the bania families that made Shekhawati a painted region, have to take initiatives to revitalise it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Loved the slideshow where I kept going back and forth to see some picture or the other that intrigued me. Anu’s questions and your replies to her and some other comments clarified my doubts. As for my favourite pics, the Vishnu-Lakshmi Ardhanari, the Dola -Maru chase and the meeting of Indra and Shiva on their respective mounts are easily the most interesting. And yes, it could be Bhagat Singh. what i found intriguing are the many pics of trains and the passengers. These probably could have been the artists’ contribution since they were sent to the cities to observe city life and they probably travelled by trains! The baratis of the Ram-Sita wedding were really cute! I think the masters didn’t interfere with the artists and allowed them to paint as they wanted, which would explain such scenes. It took me an hour to just see the pics. Hats off to you for going through all the ordeal to see hundreds of these paintings not just in Nawalgarh but also in the other cities.

    Considering the havelis belong to industrial houses that are flourishing even today, the conservation and restoration of not just the havelis but also the towns should be undertaken by them as part of their contribution to the society and the cause of art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Zephyr. The idea of a slide show came up when I saw the humber of photographs I wanted to share. For the Nawalgarh post, my first shortlist had a 100 photos. Cutting down the numbers to the present 50 was no mean task.

      The only way forward for the painted havelis is for the owners to invest in its care and preservation. They also have to think beyond high-end hotels and museums. I see a way forward with the government and haveli owners teaming up to showcase this part of our heritage. It remains to be sen what direction Shekhawati will take in the future.

      Like

  5. Glad to see all these pics and read about the same havelis which i have been seeing right from childhood. Being from Nawalgarh makes me the pharse “it has world largest open wall building” !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome here, Amit. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. As someone who has seen these havelis and frescoes/murals, I’d like to hear from you on how they have changed over the years. Also your opinion on the restoration / conservation work.

      Like

  6. Having now visited Nawalgarh, I would definitely agree with your statement that its a sensory overload after a time!!
    I completely fell in love with Morarka Haveli and found the frescos stunning and I was impressed with the upkeep of the poddar Haveli and its enthusiastic caretaker whose narrative made our hired guide give up and take a rest outside. I also liked the fact that poddar Haveli owners have hired a national award winning artist who retouches the damaged paintings. I felt between Morarka’s principle of not retouching and poddar’s active retouching, a traveler gets to see the difference in the paintings in their original form and damaged form!!

    Yes the filth was really depressing, but on the bright side our toddler had whale of a time rolling in dust in the courtyards of these museums!!

    Liked by 1 person

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