Every traveller has a story or two or maybe more about chance happenings that led to something more, something interesting. This is one such story. 🙂
I had just finished my tour of the Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum at Nawalgarh and had walked out of the main door. Unlike other havelis, the entrance to the Podar Haveli Museum is not level with the road and is situated about 15-20 feet above ground. From where I stood, I had the advantage of height and could look around and into the compounds of neighbouring havelis.
One such pastel-coloured haveli caught my attention. Located opposite the Podar Haveli Museum, its architecture exhibited colonial influences. It also had a large painting on one of its walls which, from where I stood, looked pretty interesting. But the high walls, closed gate and the freshly painted look of the haveli indicated that it was perhaps inhabited. I decided to check with the Museum staff if they knew anything about that haveli and if it would be possible for me to visit it.
Turned out that the Museum staff knew quite a bit. The haveli was the private residence of the Podars, the very family that owned the Museum. This was where the family members and their friends stayed whenever they visited Nawalgarh. Currently, the haveli was undergoing repairs and renovation and was, therefore, unoccupied. And yes, I could go and see the haveli if I wished to.
Of course I wished to ! I didn’t need any further encouragement and off I went. 🙂
There was no one when I arrived at the haveli — no watchman or caretaker or anybody for that matter. The gates to the haveli opened easily, and though the doors to the lower level were locked, there was a staircase leading to the upper level.
Signs of renovation were everywhere — in the bundles of ropes, empty paint and primer cans, stacks of wooden planks and bamboo poles, and scaffolding. Signs of freshly painted designs were also visible, like the one in the photograph on the left.
There was a man mixing colours when I climbed the stairs and reached the upper level. I can’t say who was more startled — he or me. I was the first to recover and apologised for giving him a scare; he, in turn, removed earphones and said that he would never have heard me anyway ! Apologies out-of-the-way, we got talking.
The man was a painter, an artist and he introduced himself as Swarnkar. Originally from Bikaner, he taught himself to paint and started off by doing posters and small jobs. Slowly, he moved to painting in the Shekhawati style and earned a reputation for repainting and restoring the damaged paintings in many of the Shekhawati havelis. The Podars had hired him to retouch and repaint the paintings in the Museum. He had won Rajasthan State Government awards for his work and had also been hired by industrialists and business houses to paint the interiors of their residences and offices. The Podars were his biggest patrons.
“Did you see the paintings on the façade of the exterior walls of the Podar Haveli Museum? I retouched the originals or re-painted them depending on the damage,” Swarnkar said.
“Yes, I saw them. They are beautiful. I’m so happy to meet the artist who painted the frescoes there,” I said in delight.
“No, no, no. They are not frescoes,” Swarnkar hastened to correct me. “They are murals.”
“What is the difference,” I asked?
And Swarnkar proceeded to explain the difference in simple detail. Frescoes are painted on a wet plaster applied to a wall or ceiling. A binding agent in the form of animal fat or plant derived glue is always added to the paint to bind it to the plaster. The paint dries and cures along with the plaster. Murals, on the other hand, are always painted on a dry surface which could be stone, dried and cured plaster, and even wood.
Due to the very nature of frescoes, only small patches can be painted at one time. It is also essential for the plasterer or mason and the artist to work in tandem for painting frescoes. Painting frescoes are also labour intensive and therefore, prohibitively expensive. Murals are not bound by such restrictions as the painter comes in later, after all the construction work is over. Also, large areas can be painted at one time at far lesser costs.
Swarnkar made a sweeping motion with his hand and said, “If these were frescoes, there would be many more people here. Because this is a mural, I can do all the work by myself and I don’t have to depend on anybody.”
Swarnkar also said how the source of the paint itself had changed over the years. From plant-based natural colours, the paint was now artificially and commercially manufactured.
“See the yellow here?” he pointed. “It used to come from turmeric. And the blue from indigo. But not anymore. In fact, I don’t even have to spend time mixing colours to get that perfect shade. I get many shades and hues of the same colour ! But I do try to stick to the palette of colours used by the original artists. When freshly painted they look a little too bright, but in a year or so, they will fade and look like they have been here for a long, long time.”
Swarnkar continued pointing out little details on the mural that he was working on — a rasleela (do click on the picture to see the details) — applying finishing touches here and there. This was also the opportunity for me to photographed him as Swarnkar refused to be photographed in any other way !
As Swarnkar got immersed in his work, I realised that I was in his way. Though I would have liked to stay on and talk with him some more, I knew that it was best that I left. As I thanked him and took my leave, Swarnkar suddenly asked,
“Have you been to Mumbai’s international airport? The new one — T2?”
I shook my head.
“I have painted a mural there in the Shekhawati style. Whenever you go there, keep a look out for it.”
“I will,” I promised. “I don’t know when I will get a chance to fly out or fly into of Mumbai’s T2 terminal, but I hope it will be soon.”
I didn’t meet any other painter in Shekhawati during my travels in the region. If I had known that, I would have spent more time with Swarnkar.