The mansions of the Shekhawati district in northern Rajasthan belong to the families of the Marwari business community who today hold centre stage in the rapidly expanding economy of modern India.
Initially, they made their fortunes from the trade carvans that criss-crossed their region on the way to and from Delhi: south to the Arabian Sea and on to Africa, west to present-day Pakistan and on to Iran and north to Kabul in Afghanistan. Later, the British arrived in the guise of the East India Company and land-based trade routes withered as the colonialists established the great sea ports of Calcutta and Mumbai. The shrewd Marwaris moved to the new ports, and particularly to Calcutta, where they now form the single biggest, wealthiest and most influential section of the population. Under the British they became agents, brokers and financiers in the sea ports, specializing in commodities such as opium, tea, jute, silver and gold. A portion of the fabulous wealth accrued by the Marwari merchants was sent back to the homeland where it was used to finance the building of magnificent havelis.
In the late nineteenth century, a feverish passion for new building gripped the Marwaris, in tandem with a craze for fresco painting, all provoked by the heady spirit of one-upmanship that now consumed the merchants. Fresco painting is a traditional skill in Rajasthan and as the new buildings went up, local artists were offered large, fresh canvass to work on. Each haveli had to be bigger and better and each fresco brighter and more refined than the next one. Every local artist was dragooned into service, reinforcements were brought in from all over the state as well as from neighbouring ones and the wealthiest merchants lured the most talented court painters to come and work on their mansions.
In such a competitive climate, the owners were not particularly concerned with the subject matter of the paintings and therefore gave the artists free rein. Their chief artistic inspiration came from religion but they also depicted kings and queens and their courts, everyday scenes of women collecting water, hunting scenes, floral and geometric motifs and portraits of animals such as elephants and camels. The subject matter also reflected the changing times. Through the sea ports, the Marwari merchants were exposed to the world beyond India and more particularly to the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. On their annual visits to their desert mansions, they took back lithographs and drawings of marvels such as steam-driven trains and ships, horse- drawn landaus and Mr. Ford's new four-wheeled contraption, which were duly included- in delightfully incongruous fashion- in the frescoes on their walls. The chemical reaction between the water-based pigments and the lime plaster of the walls has lent the frescoes a surprising degree of permanence despite the glaring sunlight of the location. Because the pigment was applied to the damp plaster, the artists had to work very fast before the plaster dried, creating a distinctively fluid and spontaneous style.
The painted facades of the handsome and imposing havelis that make up the desert towns of the Shekhawati district of northern Rajasthan are unmistakable. Built for Marwari merchants as impressive displays of their wealth, they are painted inside and out with a remarkable gallery of frescoes on religious, royal and everyday themes. Nowhere else in India, or indeed the world, boasts such prolific amounts of fresco work. The colourful decoration forms a strong contrast with the drab surroundings of scrub desert where temperatures soar to fifty degrees centigrade in summer and plummet below zero in winter.
The flat, smooth finish of the grand stone mansions of Shekhawati was perfect to paint on rather than carve.
The havelis would accommodate the extended family, three generations, along with various family branches, lived in a single haveli. A rivalry gripped the merchant families who competed with each other to have the biggest and most exuberantly frescoed building.
The haveli frescoes were painted over a period of three-hundred years and richly illustrate social change and developments in lifestyle, particularly during the nineteenth century. There was a fascination for the products of the Industrial Revolution, such as the steam boat and steam train, the car and the Wright brothers' first airplane. Alongside these quirky images were more localized subjects: shikars (tiger hunts), Royal Durbars, portraits of princes and religious subjects.
The finest fresco work was reserved for the interior and the richer the merchant, the better the artists he could afford. No surface was left untouched and this included awkward ceilings. Producing a fresco involves creating a chemical reaction between the water-based pigment and the lime plaster, so painting had to be quickly completed while the plaster was still wet. This resulted in a free-style form of illustration.
Not only did these merchants build extravagant homes but they paid for buildings and facilities for the wider community. They believed that this would guarantee them a place in heaven so they did not stint on the quality. Temples and shrines were as exquisitely painted as their own houses, with religious scenes and illustrations of Indian mythology, shown here through the interior of the dome of a temple.