Shobita Punja in Indian Review of Books: ‘Cooper has a very personal style of writing which is very ‘reader friendly’. The guidebook has a very neat, interesting description of the area. Cooper has provided a colourful description of the area. Cooper has provided a colourful account of the patrons of Shekhawati, the painters and their families. How the murals were executed, the technique and the styles are also adequately outlined. Details and sections of the paintings, and where the murals are placed on the walls of the building are illustrated by colored photographs. Having read Copper’s guidebook I am eager to visit Shekhawati’.
Lenely Planet India: ‘It’s worth investing in a copy of ‘The Painted Towns of Shekhawati’ by Ilay Cooper. The book gives details of the buildings of interest in each town, along with fine sketch maps of the larger towns in the area.’
Eric Newby in The Observer: ‘Without a knowledgeable guide in Shekhawati one is more or less sunk. Fortunately, there is a very good guidebook…by Ilay Copper…His book deserves a wider public.’
My connection with Shekhawati dates back to an event in the summer of 1971. The night train thundered through hot darkness, heading for Ferozepore, then the frontier-crossing into Pakistan. It was crowded, with no hope of a berth. Unable to sleep, 1 started a conversation with the student in front of me. His name was Suresh Bansal, a member of the Agrawal sub caste of the Bania (Business) caste and he was returning home from Nagaland, across the whole width of north India. There, his family had a business. His village, Narnaund, was in Haryana. There seemed nothing strange to him that business and home were so widely separated. He knew many other Agrawal families in just the same position. When preparing to get down at Jind, he invited me to join him and visit Narnaund, but this was the first stage in my overland journey back to England. Funds were low and 1 was in the mood for home. Later, we corresponded.
Back in India the following year, I took up his invitation. His father owned a small general store in Narnaund’s bazaar, where Suresh spent much of his time, seated cross—legged, selling. When he was free, we would cycle around the countryside exploring the surrounding villages. Sometimes, in the evening, a group of us would cycle to Jind to see the latest film. The landscape was Hat, well—irrigated by a system of canals, so cycling was easy. More often, the evenings passed in the back of that small shop, drinking tea, smoking beedies and gossiping with whoever turned up.
During one such session, inspired by a day out cycling, I announced that I was going to cycle through the adjoining state of Rajasthan and that rash remark became a commitment. The following day, Suresh and I went to Jind in search of a suitable bike, returning in the evening with a second—hand Hero cycle for Rs 100. It was a gearless, solid, black upright, a basket on the front and a sturdy carrier on the back, just like every other bike in India at the time. It proved a bargain. I spent that winter riding not only across Rajasthan to Jaisalmer and Barmer but also eastwards, through Delhi and Jhansi, finishing the trip at the end of March in Bodh Gaya when summer heat made the journey tough. Later, I gave the bike to Suresh. It is still in his go down at Narnaund.
The first few days of that journey, from rich, green Haryana to arid, dusty Rajasthan, dictated my future. I followed a route even now unfamiliar to tourists, passing through Hissar then south across the state frontier to Rajgarh, in Churu district. By the evening of the second day I approached Taranagar, a little town rising whitely north of that lonely road. Pushing the bike through narrow, flagged streets in search of somewhere to stay, I was struck by the enormous mansions. The very bulk of these houses spoke of great wealth. As a final gesture, their walls had been covered with bright figurative paintings. There was no obvious source of prosperity. The landscape around was hopelessly barren, a sandy desert of rippled dunes, interrupted only by occasional pollarded trees and clumps of plumed elephant grass. Livestock was limited to camels and goats.
A local shopkeeper put me up in his house then, indulging my interest, took me round some of the great mansions. All were empty, but there was always a chowkidar— watchman — willing to open the place and show off the best rooms. Apparently these houses were called havelis and their owners lived far away in Calcutta. The wealth had come from Calcutta, not from the surrounding desert.
It was easy for an Englishman to date the paintings since, apart from cars, trains and bicycles; they often included portraits of King George V, who reigned from 1911 to 1936. My grandfather, as a young officer in the Indian Army, had attended his great Darbar of 1911, which shifted India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The cars and trains in the pictures suggested that most of them dated from the 1920s.
The next day, pedalling westwards through the desert, I pondered how these havelis had grown up in such a place. Why had prosperous Calcutta folk picked Taranagar, and who was the eccentric artist they had employed to paint all those pictures? That evening I entered Sardarshahr, a larger town, more richly endowed with no less imposing havelis, each equally heavily painted. So I had to shift my thesis to an assumption that painted havelis were a characteristic of all Rajasthan’s small towns. But, leaving Sardarshahr, I cycled out of the painted area and saw nothing like those painted havelis throughout the breadth of north India. Later, in Delhi, I was compelled to draw on the Indian Tourism Development Corporation collection of photographs to illustrate an account of that trip for ‘Yatri’, its magazine. There were no pictures of such buildings and no one seemed aware of their existence. My interest deepened.
In 1975, armed with a camera, I returned to Taranagar. My host from the last visit had just purchased a truck and planned to take his family and friends to Salasar to have it blessed at a potent Hanuman temple. Invited to accompany him, I joined the younger men sitting on top of the truck’s cab and, from that perch, first set eyes on the havelis of true Shekhawati. There I discovered far more, similar paintings. When I quit Taranagar it was towards those Shekhawati towns.
Churu became my headquarters partly because I made friends with Nand Kishore Chaudhary, another Agrawal Bania, soon after reaching the town, but also because it was strategically well—placed. It was a district town on the main line from Delhi to Bikaner, on the now—defunct Delhi-Jodhpur line as well as on one to Jaipur. Long—distance buses were less important in the 1970s; it was trains that mattered. Room 3 (a 2.25 metre cube: I measured it) in little Annapurna Hotel, opposite the railway station, became my base. Until Rabu and I finished the Shekhawati documentation in l987, Room 3 remained both home and office.
From Churu I set out to explore Shekhawati. The more I saw and questioned, the more interested I became in those painted buildings and the merchants who had financed them. By travelling across and out of it in each direction, I defined the extent of the painted region. It fell within three administrative areas: Jhunjhunu district, the west of Sikar district and the eastern part of Churu district.
I traveled alone or with local friends, sometimes on foot, sometimes cadging a lift from a passing camel—cart, sometimes on a new, blue Atlas cycle. I rode on the roofs of tough little buses plying the sandy tracks between villages, or in the slow, convenient train that puffed its way out of Churu each morning (it still runs, but no longer puffs) towards Sikar, passing through some of the best painted towns.
I wrote several articles, but these did not draw large— scale attention to Shekhawati. In July 1976, having just published an article on the murals in Illustrated Weekly of India, I met a Frenchman, Francis Wacziarg on the first post—l965 war train to Pakistan and told him of the painted buildings. Returning to India in 19 78, determined to write a book on the phenomenon, I discovered that he and Aman Nath had already embarked on one. Each of us had his book accepted, then dropped by a publisher, then dropped. Finally, their book came out in 1982, causing much interest but, written from Delhi, it was clearly not the last word. I continued exploring and writing.
In December 1984, as a result of the growing interest in Shekhawati, a seminar was held in Mandawa Fort, under the auspices of the newly-formed Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Funds from the Charles Wallace Trust, intended to encourage Indo— British cultural exchange, had just been settled on INTACH and this was a good opportunity to use them. I heard of the seminar by chance, through friends in England, gate— crashed and was invited to stay. At its close, I was asked to document the painted buildings as a first step to conservation. A rate of funding was defined but on arriving to start work I found that INTACH had cut this to a tenth of the agreed sum. That should have finished the project, but I was sufficiently angry to accept. I could survive on M SOOO a month, being drawn by enthusiasm, not money. A Shekhawati chapter of INTACH was created, only to dissolve as interest waned. The second step, concrete action towards conservation, is still pending.
I selected a local teacher, Ravindra (Rabu) Sharma, as assistant. He proved invaluable. Together, we spent more than two years carrying out the Shekhawati documentation. Keen to cover as much of the area as possible, we worked hard, six days a week, entering each new town on a little l75cc motorcycle supplied to the project. Having found somewhere to stay, we sought a street map of the current town, but often we were compelled to map it ourselves, pacing the streets with a compass. Then we worked, street by street, measuring, describing, photographing and drawing a plan of any building of interest. Each town took several weeks.
It could be a tedious business. People were interested in the project and we were repeatedly questioned. Soon, the answers flowed out automatically, since the questions were invariably the same. To escape the busy streets, we set aside a day a week to seek out some isolated monument nearby. It might be a derelict temple, a memorial or an abandoned fort high up on the spine of hills that crosses Shekhawati.
Sometimes we had press—engineered problems. They could be minor, like a sequence of attacks in the yellow press in Jhunjhunu. Since the articles were completely false, I raged in indignation, having yet to learn that no one takes those news—sheets seriously. Sometimes, they were more destructive, as when a Sikar hack wrote that we were up to some sort of mischief, were being pursued by the government and police. Published in Punjab Kesari’, a widely-circulated newspaper, the local administration chose to believe it. We appealed to the paper, the local Collector and to INTACH for a denial of the report. All evaded the responsibility. I soon realised that they would also not have the courage to act against us. The work required good public relations and the cooperation of many householders, so it was necessary to counteract the story. We took tea openly throughout the town and, as a crowd collected, we ridiculed the report and the administration that had believed it. We were easy enough to identify: if the police wanted to arrest us, let them! That brought us support and sympathy. We continued work, but it was a salutary lesson.
We finished the project in June 1987, having described and photographed 2260 buildings, most of them painted havelis. Later, going to the INTACH office, I was confronted by a new man in charge. Having no idea who I was, he launched onto a description of the organisation’s work, then took me into the library and gestured at a line of folders. ‘This is our greatest work’. It was ‘Shekhawati Survey by INTACH’, neatly bound, with neither of our names mentioned. That documentation still awaits publication by INTACH.
After completing the survey, I spent a couple of months in Hotel Shiv Shekhawati in Jhunjhunu writing the first edition of this book, which Arvind Sharma saw through the local printers. It sold well. In l994 Mapin published an expanded second edition in colour. The company failed to reprint so I turned to Prakash for the present edition.
Twenty—three years have passed since Rabu and I embarked on the INTACH documentation. No action has been taken to preserve these monuments. Some have collapsed; others were demolished or whitewashed. The current fashion is to paint over traditional murals in a 2l" century style, using bright modern pigments. I have not removed the handful of desecrated or destroyed buildings from the guide section, only added a note on their fate. A thriving tourism has grown up based on the painted buildings, Sooner or later, someone will realise that the business will go with the buildings.
There is only one practical way to save these painted monuments. Amongst the Marwari community that built them are many of India’s richest men and, in Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s wealthiest industrialist. The buildings are their heritage, their background and their contribution to India’s cultural wealth. They could unite in forming a trust dedicated to the preservation of a representative selection of their community’s painted buildings and to create a museum devoted to the Marwari conquest of India’s commerce and industry. It was, after all, an enormous, bloodless victory.
Throughout the text there are references to named towns followed by a number in brackets; for example, Fatehpur (16). 'These numbers relate to the Guide section of the book, where the towns are listed alphabetically, their important buildings listed numerically. So under Fatehpur the chosen building is 16th in the list ~ one of the town’s best painted havelis, recently collapsed and demolished! The name of each haveli derives from the family or individual who constructed it, thus a rich merchant called Gulab Rai Ladia constructed Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli.
A few buildings bear dated inscriptions, but generally the date given is an estimation drawn from a building’s architectural features or the style and palette of its murals (usually, but not always, contemporary with construction) Both are based on a chronology l created with reference to the many dated local monuments.
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