When we arrived at the Rao Madho Singh Trust Museum in Kota on that November morning last year, I was taken aback to see the freshly whitewashed exteriors of the Museum building. I mean, why would a red sandstone structure be whitewashed over? The white is so blinding in the mid-morning sunlight that I had to shade my eyes to even look at it.
The Museum is located within the historic Kota City Palace or Kota Garh complex, which consists of many buildings, but none of the other buildings in the palace complex were whitewashed. In fact, the building next to the Museum has been spared the whitewash (except for the domes) and I was able to admire the intricate stone jaalis or lattice-work that covered the entire structure.
The building with the jaalis, however, was not open to the public, making me wonder if the whitewash was for the benefit of the visitors to the Museum, who (according to the website) visit it see its
rich collections of arms and armour, royal regalia and ritual paraphernalia, textiles and objets d’art, and world-famous miniature paintings and wall frescos.
As our group was entering the Museum, there was a moment of panic where I wondered if the interiors of the Museum have been whitewashed over as well, obliterating the wall paintings that I was most keen to see. But then just past the Elephant Gate (see header), I looked up and saw a gloriously painted ceiling (see photograph below) and I knew that all was well.
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 the 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 Niti and I decided to try our luck when we visited the Garh Mahal