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United Colours of Shekhawati

The frescoes of Shekhawati depict stunning art and history

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Pradeep Chamaria
Pradeep Chamaria
I am a photojournalist. Love to travel to unknown and unexplored vistas. Since 1992, I make places desirable for other travelers through experiential Travel Writing.

INDIA. Fatehpur Shekhawati, Rajasthan. ‘Fresco’ in Italian denotes the traditional medium for painting. In fresco paintings, earth pigments are painted directly on fresh, wet lime plaster. It is also known as the Green method and is the oldest documented painting technique.

The method of Fresco is a cheaper supplement of marble. Fresco applications impart a smooth and glossy finish to the walls. They are permanent in nature and paintings as old as 100 years are still intact. Apart from its permanency, the floor and walls decorated in Frescos remain cool in summer and warm in winter. This wet process of wall paintings is also known by the names Arayash, Alagila, and Morakasi.

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Frescoes in Shekhawati, Rajasthan. Shekhawati means “the land of Shekha’s clan” or “the gardens of the Shekha”. It is a semi-desert region in Rajasthan in the triangle between Delhi-Bikaner-Jaipur. It derives its name from Rao Shekha (1433-1488), a part of and scion of the Kachhwaha family of Jaipur.

Fresco making in the Shekhawati region is several centuries old. The region hosts about 2,000 havelies (Palatial Homes) featuring frescoes which were built between the 17th and 20th centuries. The frescoes represent the three-dimensional canvases on which a rural imagination has left its imprint.

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The land of millionaires. Shekhawati was the land of the Marwaris, the rich merchants of Rajasthan. The region was a goldmine 200 years ago when there were huge earnings through outposts for caravans on the Silk Route, the trading route to the Arabian Sea.

This rise in the opulence of Marwaris led to the birth of the haveli. An era of mass construction of ornately decorated residences and Shekhawati’s art. The size of the frescoes in a haveli was a measure of the wealth of the owner. Land of Shekhawati hence became the home of the largest concentration of frescoes in the world.

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Decline and destruction. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Silk Route faced a decline in use. This led to migration of the Marwaris to the coastal cities of India (Calcutta and Bombay primarily). The havelies were subjected to detritus.

In recent years, efforts towards spreading awareness about this unique art heritage have been made and sustainable heritage tourism is being seen as a way of both ensuring the protection and conservation of frescoes and havelies.

The intricately carved havelies of Shekhawati are now the prime tourist attraction of Rajasthan, and one of the most luxurious tourist destinations in the country. These havelies are a glimpse into the rich past of the area.

Ancient fresco technique. Fresco painting is a complicated process that involves the application of different materials in multiple layers. Four coats of a dense, non-sticky, purified lime paste plaster called “Sudha Bandhan” or “Panna,” made by a time-consuming water soaking process, filtering and then mixing with rice husk, jute fibers, cow dung (gobar), gur (jaggery), and methi were normally applied to the walls followed by a final layer of pigments. Curd was also mixed to make the paste smooth, and add shine. White shell was used as a binding agent in the solution and ghinki (marble powder) was used in fresco plaster to get a brighter white colour. The overall process is called “Sudha Lape.”

Fresco artists and natural pigments. The fresco paintings were executed by chiteras artists belonging to the kumhars (potters) caste. The pigments were made from natural colours extracted from plants, minerals, and stones. Gold leaf was incorporated at times for a rich effect.

Two methods were used in making frescoes: the ‘fresco-buono’, in which paintings were done by putting colours on wet lime plasters to give more stable and lifelong paintings, and second, ‘fresco-secco’, in which paintings were done on the dry surface of the wall.   

Painting procedure. A rough sketch (Rekha Karm) was done on paper by punching it with a sharp needle after which it was put against the wall coated with Sudha Bandhan. Colours were rubbed lightly by hand on this sketch to get the impression on the surface in the process called Jharna (Khaka). The process of the final application of paints, called Varn Vyas, was then done. The paintings were rubbed lightly with a soft cloth to check the stability of colour and finally polished with Akaki stone and coconut to remove impurities. 

Shekhawati frescoes mostly depict ten broad themes – decorative designs, daily life, religion, raga mala, folk mythology, historical events or personalities, flora and fauna, erotica, certain places, and the British.

Visiting Shekhawati. Shekhawati is a broad region rather than a city. It is advisable to have your own vehicle to go around and make the most of the area.  It takes about seven hours from Delhi to cover the 300 kilometres. The best times to visit are after the monsoons and during the winter.

All photos taken by Pradeep Chamaria

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