Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to that extraordinary place in January this year. I had to wait for nearly 6 months, though, before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions. This post on Fatehpur is the sixth of 8 posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read the introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further. If you have already done so, then dive straight into the post.
The door to the haveli was shut. A signboard (in Hindi, English and French) requesting visitors to ring the bell if they wished to tour the haveli greeted me instead. I rang the bell and waited. And I waited and waited some more… Just as I was getting ready to ring the doorbell again, I heard footsteps approaching the door.
The door opened and I found myself face to face with a young man, a Westerner, who said in a distinctly French accent, “Hello ! Sorry I took so long to open the door. I was in another part of the haveli. Are you here to see it?
“Yes, please, ” I said.
“Great ! My name is Jonathan and I’m an art history student. I’ll take you around the haveli. Would you like the tour to be in Hindi, English or French?”
I gaped at Jonathan and said, “Umm… English please.”
“Wonderful,” beamed Jonathan. “Welcome to the Nadine Le Prince Haveli.”
And that’s how an art history student from France took me on a guided tour of a haveli in Fatehpur in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, India.
But more about that later, as I have to introduce you to Fatehpur and take you around some of the other havelis there first. 🙂
Fatehpur was founded on the site of an earlier settlement in 1451 by Fateh Khan, a Kaimkhani or Muslim Rajput. His successors ruled Fatehpur till 1731 when they were evicted by Sheo Singh of Sikar. Thereafter, a series of rulers played musical chairs to control the region — the Kaimkhanis briefly came back in the 1740s for a short while only to be ousted again; the Marathas, too, controlled of the area for a brief period in the last decade of the 18th century, and so on
The bania community had always flourished in Fatehpur from the time it was ruled by the Kaimkhanis. Perhaps, that’s the reason why some of the oldest havelis and frescoes in the region are in Fatehpur. The prominent business families of Fatehpur were the Singhanias, Poddars, Devras, Sarogis, Chaudharys and Ganeriwalas, with most of them migrating to the cities in the 19th century. Fatehpur is still considered to be a relatively prosperous town, but today’s prosperity comes from remittances from the Gulf region, where many Muslim youth of the town are employed.
When I arrived in Fatehpur on that January afternoon and had my first look at the havelis, I realised that this was no ordinary painted town. Unfortunately, it rained through most of my visit making it difficult to walk in the slush and mud town. I had also arrived around lunch and siesta time, which meant that the watchmen/caretakers of the few havelis open to visitors had disappeared locking the doors behind them. Still, I did manage to see the interiors of two havelis; I also saw a few others from the outside, though I didn’t always know which one I was seeing. Most of them didn’t have any board outside, you see. 😦
Architecturally, the havelis were quite similar to what I had seen elsewhere in the other painted towns. Most of the havelis were built in the traditional Rajput Mughal style; only one or two showed colonial influence. The real difference was in the subject of the paintings and the colours used.
Like every other painted town visited in Shekhawati, Fatehpur too had a very distinctly different set of frescoes. The usual religious themes were there, but with a twist — an element of fantasy had crept in some of them. The quality of the paintings and the detailing was exquisite even if some of them had been copied from an existing print.
For example, see the photo on the left, which is adapted from a Raja Ravi Varma painting. Painted inside the entrance arch to a haveli, the detailing and colours of this artwork, which measures about 6-8 inches across, has to be seen to be believed; the photograph doesn’t quite capture it. Do see the photograph of the artwork below as well.
There has been a lot of experimentation with colour in the havelis of Fatehpur. Unlike other painted towns in the region, which can be identified by a dominant colour scheme used there, it was difficult to pick out one for Fatehpur as the entire colour spectrum can be found on the walls of its havelis.
It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the most colourful frescoes in Shekhawati are to be found in Fatehpur. From the earthy combination of red ochre and indigo blue, to yellow ochre to delicate pastels to olive greens to monochromes to the use of the most brilliant shade of turquoise (see photograph below) … they are all there.
Fatehpur was the 4th town in Shekhawati I visited and though I was as awestruck by the frescoes and the variety like in the other towns, my viewing was more disciplined. Unlike the first time at a haveli in Nawalgarh where I didn’t know where to look first and kept rushing from one wall to another and generally made myself dizzy, I took time to view each fresco at each haveli that I was able to view, one by one, from top to bottom and in a clockwise manner. After all the havelis and the frescoes weren’t going anywhere !
Presenting a set of 50 photographs from the painted havelis of Fatehpur. They cover religious themes, geometrical designs, portraits, fantastical interpretations of popular myths, and some whimsical ones as well. Clicking on any of the captioned photographs will start a slide show. Though you can start the slide show from any photograph, I recommend that you begin with the first, and once you have finished seeing the photos, don’t forget to come back and read about my time at the Nadine Le Prince Haveli.
The Nadine Le Prince Haveli was the last one I visited in Fatehpur. The rain had really picked up by that time and I was glad to get inside a haveli and wait till it stopped. As Jonathan showed me around the by now familiar layout of a Shekhawati haveli, he narrated the history of the haveli.
Built in 1880, it was originally known as the Nand Lal Devra Haveli. It was bought by Nadine Le Prince, a French artist, in 1999 who painstakingly restored it bit by bit. Some of the portions were repainted while portions were managed with a good round of cleaning. Over the years, Haveli Nadine has become a cultural hub in the region, especially for visiting artists. There is an art gallery on the premises where exhibitions are held. With the help of volunteers, a heritage walk of Fatehpur’s havelis is being conceptualised and planned. A couple of trial runs have already been done
Jonathan was an excellent guide. Apart from the haveli and Shekhawati frescoes, we also spoke about his time in India. When I asked him how he came to Shekhawati, his answer surprised me.
You know, for the French and especially those who study art and history, the introduction to India is not the Taj Mahal as it is for the rest of the world or yoga or spirituality. It is Shekhawati and its painted havelis. We study about this in our art and history classes. I came here on a study tour and liked it so much that I decided to stay back for 6 months and volunteer my services here.
This statement made many things clear to me. While I had not come across any Indian tourists or travellers in Shekhawati, the international tourists I had come across were all French.
After the tour, Jonathan and I had a great conversation about art and travel, and the Shekhawati frescoes in particular. Suddenly, he excused himself and came back with a book and said, “Since you’re so interested in art and Shekhawati, you should buy this book.” It was Ilay Cooper’s book. I smiled and pulled out my copy from the backpack and showed it to him.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. You should have come here two days back. Ilay Cooper was here,” said Jonathan.
I can’t tell you how crushed I felt at that moment. To have chosen to visit Shekhawati because of a book and then to discover that I missed meeting the author of that book by two days. 2 days ! Sometimes life is not fair, I tell you. 😦
- Fatehpur is 48 km from Nawalgarh, my base in Shekhawati, and little over an hour’s ride from there.
- Many 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.
- 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.