The fame of the open air museum of Shekhawati had set me off to this extraordinary place and this post on Fatehpur is the third of 4 posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. I suggest that you read the introduction to Shekhawati here to get an in depth idea of the fantastic obscurity of this region. I had reached Mandawa, one of the better known Shekhawati towns a day before and had stayed at the gorgeous Mandawa Heritage Hotel. My first day had featured Mandawa and the gorgeous Sona Chandi ki Dukan at Mahansar. Shekhawati being quite a large area, my short itinerary of 4 days had made me select a few of the best known sites for exploring the region’s famous painted mansions.
Fatehpur had been one of Shekhawati’s crown jewels and I had eagerly looked forward to the French Nadine haveli. Located midway between Bikaner and Jaipur, Fatehpur had been founded by a Muslim feudal lord, Fateh Khan Kayamkhani in 1451 AD and the small town had a considerably wealthy and quirky past. While the wealth had been credited to the Silk Route trade, it had been Fatehpur’s ruling prince and the founder’s eldest son who had added to the town’s whimsical history. A kind ruler and a warrior, Jalalkhan had inherited the seat of Fatehpur after his father’s death and the new ruler had been a softhearted tree hugging eccentric. Fatehpur’s Islamic connection had preceded the Kayamkhani times and its throne had changed many hands. The town had been the base of one of the strongest merchant communities in Shekhawati and most of the oldest painted havelis of the region had been situated there.
Presently, owing to the huge chunk of the population being expat workers in Gulf countries, Fatehpur had still been quite wealthy and after Mandawa’s rustic filth, I had hoped for a good balance of preserved heritage with modern infrastructure. The reality had been farthest from my wishful image and Fatehpur had resembled one huge open sewer. Broad broken roads had held stunning painted havelis in various forms of decay (and preservation) and green slime had shivered in open shallow drains. Big bristly boars had wallowed in the ugly slush and I had been disgusted by the mountains of garbage that had piled at every step. It had been most shocking and I had had to look away until the painted house of Nadine had loomed in front of me. A beautiful well preserved mansion filled with dazzlingly colourful frescoes from top to bottom, Haveli Nadine or Agrez ki Haveli (Foreigner’s Haveli) had been a gift of love.
When the French artist, Nadine Le Prince had visited Shekhawati many decades back, she had been left awestruck by the architectural legacy of the region. The havelis decaying conditions, however had left her heartbroken and she had returned in 1999 to purchase a 19th century mansion, with the purpose to restore it to its original glory. Soon, with the relentless support of Dinesh Dhabhai of Mandawa Haveli, Nadine had recruited a team of artisans, painters and had selected appropriate methods of restoration for her loving haveli. It had been a monumental task, but one which had turned around the fate of the 1802 mansion and she had soon managed to bring back the true beauty of Shekhawati frescoes in her dream project. Nadine Haveli had been truly gorgeous and it had been fitfully turned into a cultural center. A few beautifully and traditionally decorated rooms had also been rented out for short stays and it’s art gallery had attracted volunteers from all across the world. A small cafe had remained tastefully obscured amidst its courtyard garden and over the years many international exhibitions had been hosted at the art gallery.
I had been infatuated by the Nadine Haveli from the very first sight and a brief paid, guided tour had made her incredible love for the mansion come alive. The haveli had been a reflection of an artist’s soul and in its sunlit interiors French sensibilities had seamlessly mingled with Shekhawati opulence. Bright bold, bougainvilleas had splashed on the frescoed walls and stark marble breakfast tables had stood in front of traditional ornamental doors. Nadine had left her mark everywhere and incidentally, her determination had influenced many Fatehpur havelis to be freshly restored. While, most of the restoration work did not possess Nadine’s finesse, it had been a welcome sight to see the owners take care of their precious legacy. The lane in which Nadine Haveli had stood, had been a mecca for old painted mansions and it had seemed like a sort of a museum walk. Every niche, corner, doorway and space had miniature portraits of Shekhawati aspirants and their muses and fantastic modern foreign inventions had jostled for space with Hindu mythological deities. Flowers had curled from every available space and the uniformity of preference of pastel shades had made them very soothing to the eye.
Dusty olive greens, egg yolk ochre, turquoise blue, red, gold and rose pink had created soft rainbows and Fatehpur had shown a curious taste for Spanish looking women in Mughal garbs. Persian (read Mughal) poses and fashion had been quite popular and because of Shekhawati’s Muslim roots, it had not been hard to understand why. The earliest of Shekhawati frescoes had dated back to 17th century and they had been painted on structures erected by Muslim nawabs, Rajputs and the mercantile Baniya communities. Needless to say, much of the local style of that time had been influenced by Mughal work and sadly very few examples of that time had survived. The choice of 17th century Shekhawati fresco subjects had been pretty whimsical too and winged head chreubs, hatted Persian angels, cypress trees etc had been very much in vogue. 18th century had brought a boom in patronage of Rajput rulers and Baniya merchants and hunting and battle scenes, religious figures and richer colour palette had taken over.
19th and early 20th centuries had been the golden era for Shekhawati frescoes and local merchants, settled in big cities had lavished money on their home region. They had poured money into Shekhawati dusty’s lanes, by building ornate mansions and covering them with exquisite frescoes painted with colours made from precious gems. The normal trend of that ostentatious era had been constructing a set of 5 buildings namely a haveli, a temple, a cenotaph, a stepwell and a caravanserai or inn. The subject matters, too had become bolder and many had proudly depicted the British protection that they had received. Thus erotic scenes (most of which have now been prudishly defaced), blue collared workers like villagers going about their daily routine, goldsmiths, potters etc had started featuring and many wild animals, birds and plants too had started showing up. It had been an era of great wealth when everybody with money had competed with the other in building bigger, showier and fancier structures and being partly into money lending business, this had helped the patrons bedazzle the simple village folks.
Fatehpur’s infatuation for dark, Spanish looks had been most prominent during this era and many of the figures had been depictions of famous Indian and British historical personalities. They had shared the concrete canvas with many nameless people too and there had also been childish, dreamlike exaggerated renditions of historical events like battles, technical innovations like ships, planes, bicycles and cars. Intricate map pictures, folk tales of star crossed lovers like Dhola Maru, Sohni Mehwal, Sassi Punnu, Laila Majnu etc and religious incarnations of Hindu gods and goddesses had been pretty popular too and over the period of time, complex scenes had taken precedence over simple celestial amorous plays.
Shekhawati’s grandeur had bedazzled me too and I had been awed by the painstaking devotion of their creators. Attracted by the construction boom, talented Shekhawati artisans had migrated from all over the country, with the best of them hailing from Jaipur. Most of the painters had been self taught artists and they had developed the Shekhawati painting technique by trial and error method. Drawn of dry plastered surface, the paintings had been outlined with charcoal and red ochre before filling them up with different colours in stages. All the corrections had been done in the sketching phase and in the completed painting, no traces of the outlines had ever been visible. While most of the paintings had been done freehand, a few had taken help of stencils and other assisted instruments. The colours used, too had been created by the artists themselves and the natural pigments had been mixed with adhesives like local plant gum, egg or camel bone product.
Sometimes block prints had been incorporated along with the freehand style of paintings and fine details such as jewelry had shown intriguing 3D or trompe-l’œil effect. Shekhawati painting’s colours just like its style had undergone change through the centuries and until 19th century the softer tones of mineral or vegetable colours had ruled the artscape. The late 19th century had ushered in the industrial revolution and soon harsher colours of chemical paints had dominated the exterior walls. More and more brighter shades had been added by the end of 19th century and soon a kaleidoscope of garish, cruder designs and colours had marked Shekhawati paintings. Fatehpur had been a showcase of different eras of Shekhawati paintings and the faded facades of the mansions had been like a timescape. While, on some walls, arches and niches, older traditional artwork had glowed in soft fading tones, a few ornate doorways had given away glimpses of courtyards filled with bolder new styles.
While, undoubtedly a very filthy and not a little unpleasant town, my time had flown at Fatehpur and I had constantly oscillated between exploring its various mansions, only to return to Nadine Haveli’s intricate exterior walls for a breather. It had been a stunning feeling and to imagine being surrounded by exquisite hand painted heritage art in midst of filth and squalor had been imaginatively potent. There is an interesting Indian saying which when loosely translated means, “Lotus in a dung heap” and even at the cost of being borderline rude, I have no choice but to compare Shekhawati’s incredible painted towns with it. Some things in life are just too precious to be mistreated.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE