In 1916 or maybe 1917, the ruler of Jhalawar State of Rajasthan, Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh visited the temple town of Nathdwara. There was nothing unusual about his visit; the rulers of Jhalawar followed the Pushtimarg tradition, and Nathdwara was the most important religious site for followers of that tradition.
After the Maharaj Rana had his darshan of Shrinathji, the main deity at Nathdwara, he met with the Tilakayit or the head of the Nathdwara Temple and the foremost Pushtimarg leader. Once the usual pleasantries were over, Bhawani Singh asked the Tilakayit for the loan of some artists from Nathdwara to paint the Garh Mahal or Palace, the royal residence in Jhalawar. Bhawani Singh also wanted one artist in particular, Ghasiram Hardev Sharma, the mukhiya or head of Nathdwara’s painting department.
While a royal request for artists to decorate palaces was not unusual, asking for a specific artist definitely was, especially when he happened to be Ghasiram (more about him later on in this post!). The Tilakayit was not keen on sending Ghasiram and Bhawani Singh was not ready to take no for an answer. Eventually, Bhawani Singh managed to lure Ghasiram away from Nathdwara by offering him a monthly salary Rs.150/-, which was double of what he was earning at Nathdwara.
Ghasiram moved to Jhalawar as the Court Painter and therein began an association that lasted about 10-12 years and produced some extraordinary mural paintings, portraits and entire painted rooms at the Garh Mahal. Something I was not aware of when I arrived in Jhalawar in November 2016.
It was Mahijit ji, my host in Jhalawar, who told me about the painted rooms at the Garh Mahal and also that they were not open to the public. That bit of information was disappointing, but my friend and I decided to try our luck when we visited the Garh Mahal
My first view of the Garh Mahal was not very promising — it looked quite forlorn, due to the very visible air of neglect and lack of maintenance surrounding it. Like most palaces, it is not a single structure but a complex with its various buildings in different stages of repair and disrepair. Built between 1840 to 1845 during the rule of Jhalawar’s first King, Madan Singh, it was the property of the royal family till all princely states were dissolved after India’s Independence. Thereafter, the Garh Mahal became government property and till fairly recently used to house, among other things, a court, government offices, a police station, a museum, etc. Today, only the Government Museum remains, all others having moved out of the premises.
Our initial attempts at trying to find someone who could show the painted rooms was not very encouraging. Whoever we asking just shook their heads and said that the rooms were locked up and no one could see them, till a helpful museum attendant pointed us towards the Museum Office and an official who had just come in. We asked and the answer was a curt “No”. This should have ended the ‘quest’, if you can call it that, but we persisted and finally, the official agreed to let us see one room. An attendant was summoned and a bunch of keys handed over to him with strict instructions to show us only one painted room in the Garh Mahal.
We set off and passed through large doors and small, through archways and passages, past crumbling and moss-covered walls, past remnants of offices that once occupied these spaces… And then we reached a grill door that was opened and we were ushered into an open courtyard piled with sacks of cement and construction debris. There were enclosed passages running all around courtyard. From the thick festoons of cobwebs in the passages, it was clear that no one had entered this space in a long, long time
But shining through all the cobwebs were the murals — some luminous, some dynamic, some peaceful… and all of them were exquisite beyond words. My eyes filled up as it usually does when I’m in front of something so overwhelmingly beautiful, but then it could have been the dust and the cobwebs that caused me to tear up!
Maybe it was the tears or maybe it was our joy and delight at seeing the paintings or maybe it was something different — but the attendant showed us other painted rooms at the Garh Mahal. Over the next hour or so, we were led through more passages and rooms that make up the Garh Mahal.
We ducked under scaffolding like the one below to access a painted room…
… and walked past this tempting set of murals but didn’t get too close to examine it for part of the ceiling had collapsed and we could see cracks running across.
But we did stop to admire this floral pattern on the walls, the colours still bright and fresh like they were painted yesterday.
Then we entered a dark chamber and when we lit it up with light from our cell phones, we nearly jumped out of our skins to see faces staring back at us. Faces from portaits painted on the walls and embelleshed with mirrors, coloured glass and gilt. Sadly, the ceiling had collapsed here as well.
We stopped now and then to see the painted rooms, delight over some, tut-tut over the condition of some others, wonder at the identity of the portraits, and by the end of the tour my head was spinning. The sheer numbers of paintings and styles on display at the Garh Mahal was dizzying and it was very clear that many hands worked on them. It has been recorded that Ghasiram had not come alone to Jhalawar; he came with an entourage of about 20 painters, including his daughter Kankudevi, who was an accomplished artist herself.
Ghasiram (1869–1939) was a prodigiously talented painter who came from a long line of artists. In addition to being the mukhiya of the painting department at Nathdwara, he was also the head of photography, stone carving, silversmithy and tailoring departments there. He was an admirer of Raja Ravi Varma and was hugely inspired by him. Though Ghasiram never travelled abroad, he was inspired by European landscapes, colours and styles, which he studied through postcards, prints and magazines available in India. His special style was combining painting and photography in his art, especially portraits. It is not clear which murals or portraits Ghasiram painted at the Garh Mahal, for no signatures are visible. Perhaps the paintings were never signed or if they were, they were not discernible to me under the layers of dust.
The themes of the paintings are easily discernible — various forms of Krishna or rather Shrinathji, stories from the Ramayana, portraits, processional scenes, and forest and hunting scenes. I liked each one of them for different reasons. The Krishna paintings for the colours, especially the deep indigo blue used for his face; the vibrancy of the Ramayana murals; the portraits, which look like photographs touched up with paint (did Ghasiram paint them, I wonder?); and the forest scenes for the realistic depiction — the one of a leopard (or is it a cheetah?) in mid leap is stunning. As for the processional scenes, the detailing and delicate brush work stand out.
Here’s a video of a processional panel in one of the painted rooms. The attendant pointed out that the processional painting in the video depicted the Garh Mahal, but the only portion I could recognise was the area where the Museum is currently located (0.17 secs).
Here’s a peek into the painted rooms of the Garh Mahal of Jhalawar. Clicking on any of the photographs will start a slide show and you can use the arrow keys to navigate through the set. Once you have finished, do come back to read the rest of the post.
We left Garh Mahal after seeing the painted rooms — and profusely thanking the attendant — with hearts filled with delight, hands sticky and dirty (from removing all the cobwebs from the paintings!), and minds buzzing with questions.
For instance, who were the painters? I mean yes, there was Ghasiram and we are lucky to have written records of him having been in Jhalawar and painted in the Garh Mahal. But he didn’t paint everything, so who were the others? Not much is known about them. While trying to find out more about the painted rooms of the Garh Mahal, I found references to another group of painters in from Nathdwara in Jhalawar in 1938-40. In such a case, which set of paintings were painted during Ghasiram’s time and which set later? Also, who were the second set of painters?
The painted rooms in the Garh Mahal seemed endless, not that I’m complaining, but I had no clue as to what purpose each room served when it was a functioning palace. Was it a bedroom, a study, a library, an office of the Maharaja Rana, or the zenana? I know that the Garh Mahal is not meant for visitors and my friend and I were really lucky to see them. And yet to have them all locked away growing mold, cobwebs and what not is a tragedy.
That evening, I shared details of my visit to the painted rooms at the Garh Mahal with Mahijit ji, and its present condition along with the photographs I had clicked. He looked very sad and said its present condition was the reason he had stopped visiting the Garh Mahal. Mahijit ji, is Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh’s great-grandson, and has memories of the Garh Mahal as his home when he was a child. One can only imagine just how painful the present
I still can’t get over the fact that these painted rooms were used as offices by the government. Trying to imagine tables, chairs cabinets, steel almirahs, precariously stacked files in these painted rooms seems almost blasphemous, but I guess that’s how it must have been. What is worse is that the new ‘owners’ of the Garh Mahal had no idea (and perhaps still don’t) of its value and used the space and abandoned it just as callously. I don’t know if any structural changes were made to the Garh Mahal, but it is evident that the space was neither cared for or maintained.
With all government offices having been moved out of the Garh Mahal, except for the Government Museum and a security outpost, I hope this means only one thing — that there is going to be some restoration and conservation work happening there. After which it will be thrown open to the public to visit and see and appreciate this invaluable piece of heritage and history. I know, I’m getting ahead of myself and am dreaming about things over which I have no idea and definitely no influence or control. But I always live in eternal hope. 🙂
Till then, the painted rooms of the Garh Mahal, will not only remain as Jhalawar’s, but also Rajasthan’s best kept secret.
Notes: Most of the background information given in this post has come from two sources: (i) The Artists of Nathadwara: The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan by Tryna Lyons, and (ii) My host in Jhalawar, Mahijit ji, the great-grandson of Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh.
The Hadoti Trip Series: Dear Hadoti | Discovering Jhalawar | The painted rooms of the Garh Mahal of Jhalawar | Bhawani Natyashala: The opera house at Jhalawar | An evening in Jhalrapatan | The Buddhist Caves at Kolvi |