The painted towns of Shekhawati-5: Fatehpur

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.


Fatehpur, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanThe 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. 😦

Fatehpur, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan
Entrance to the Dedhia Haveli

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.

Fatehpur, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanLike 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.

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

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

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. 😦


Notes:

  1. Fatehpur is 48 km from Nawalgarh, my base in Shekhawati, and little over an hour’s ride from there.
  2. 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.
  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 |


38 thoughts on “The painted towns of Shekhawati-5: Fatehpur

    1. Welcome to “My Favourite Things”, Liam James Haddock. Thanks you so much for stopping by and commenting’

      The photos are amazing as the place is amazing. 🙂

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  1. Am speechless. Struck dumb by the frescoes. For once, they overshadow your writing. But still, Dundlod on my mind 🙂 Thank you Sudha for this series. Awesome is an understatement.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jayanti. 🙂

      Each place, each haveli was kind of special. But Fatehpur has a special place for me. It completely bowled me over with the variety and colours.

      And still Dundlod? 🙂

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  2. This haveli seems to be so well maintained. Isnt it strange, that in India, we have not even heard of this region but abroad, there is more awareness? I feel this should be part of our history text books. Thanks to you.. we have enjoyed the beauty of this region.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Haveli Nadine was the best maintained haveli I saw in Shakhawati. Of course, it has undergone restoration work, but with a lot of care and love.

      Shekhawati is not exotic enough to be be marketed to tourists, at least not in the way the rest of Rajasthan is. And how many people would really be interested in seeing art from morning till evening and over a week?

      I agree with you about the fact of Shekhawati being a part of our school history books. But that can only happen when the said school history books move beyong focussing on personalities and focusing on who is greater !

      Liked by 2 people

    1. So lovely to see you here, Krishna. Woof ! 🙂

      I have loved every fresco, every haveli seen and it has been hard to pick a favourite. But the one of the dog curled up in the space above the window is very very special. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Fatehpur was the only place I saw dogs or pets for that matter. Considering that the frescoes in Shekhawati are like a documentary of the times, beliefs and aspirations, it is wonderful to see pets feature in them.

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  3. These have to be some of the most amazing paintings I have seen so far in this series, Sudha! I love the depiction of Damayanti, and the probable swan messenger… and the flying car! the second flying vehicle, the one carried by the angel, is probably the pushpaka vimanam. considering that the occupants look like rama and sita… the other one of the elephant drawn carriage is also interesting… that looks like krishna and rukmini or radha seated in it, and reminds me of the horse drawn carriage with shiva’s family that i saw at Sankaran Kovil! amazing the kind of things we see across the country, no?

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    1. The Fatehpur paintings are pretty special and spectacular , Anuradha. The variety, the colours and the subjects. The elephant drawn carriage actually has two men in it and from their expressions it seems like they are discussing business. 🙂

      I can’t wait to see your pictures of and read the blog post on Sankaran Kovil. 🙂

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    1. A very warm welcome to my blog, Sunshine. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting your appreciation.

      Some of the paintings are amazingly well preserved while others have been quite badly damaged. I met a painter in Nawalgarh who said that some of the paintings fared better than the others due to the technique used to paint them. Once the fresco had dried they would be polished with a stone till it looked like a matte finish. The quality of preservation was directly proportional to the quality of the polish.

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  4. Dear Sudha G, First of all , I want to thank you for writing so well and in detail on the shekhawati region.
    When we decided to do a driving holiday with our 20 month old toddler through shekhawati this winter, we could find only a few articles to guide us….your posts were one of the main guides in planning our trip.

    Though we stayed in different towns while in shekhawati and visited only a fraction of the places you have described (due to our toddler limitations), we loved what we saw….and will be coming back to shekhawati for more (maybe when our toddler is a teenager and can better appreciate the heritage!!)

    We fell in love with the region, especially driving through the rough rustic landscape……and had many wonderful moments!!!

    http://www.myunfinishedlife.com

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    1. Sushmita, thank you so much for your kind words. It always helps when someone else ‘tries’ one’s experiences and recommendations for oneself. More than anything else, I am touched and overwhelmed that you took the time to write this comment. Not many people I know do it. Thank you and happy travels.

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  5. Dear Sudhagee, thank you so much for your kind words on Le Prince Haveli. I was in charge of the Haveli and Cultural Centre at the time of your visit, but unfortunately we did not meet. You will probably be glad to hear that, since your visit, further painstaking conservation work has taken place at the haveli, We are now working in close cooperation with several top experts in conservation and restoration, from Italy, France and… India. Together with them and the owners of Leprince Haveli, we have created an association, “The Shekhawati Project”, that has launched a workshop to train young Indian restorers, under the supervision of the aforesaid specialists and following strict protocols of ethical restoration. We are also trying to attract the attention of the Marwari business community and make them contribute to the conservation of this unique Shekhawati heritage. Thus we hope to save a few of those precious mansions from destruction or scrilegious restoration with acylic paint and cement.

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    1. Welcome here, Pr. J. R. Pouvelle. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. The Le Prince Haveli has taken so much initiative for heritage conservation. Kudos to you and your team. I hope that we get a chance to meet and interact in person one day.

      It is so good to hear about the new initiatives and about the Shekhawati Project. When I visit the region again, and I hope it is soon, I would like to know more about it. Good luck in your efforts against acrylic paints and cement, and more.

      PS: I see that you are from Reims? If there is one Cathedral, I really really want to visit it is the Reims Cathedral. 🙂

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