Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fresh look at rotting paint

The image I had in mind were very different from what I stood before. The magical, painted expanse of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan was nothing of the sort I could have imagined anyway. Here's the story I filed for Terrascape magazine on Mandawa.

The painted legends of the Shekhawati region were the reason for my most recent visit to Rajasthan. Having set out of New Delhi late in the night, the contrast between the mind-numbing oncoming post-office traffic through Gurgaon and the quiet, moonlit expanse that lay ahead of me beyond Pataudi was enough of a shock to my mind. The farther we progressed from the cold, material world, the more relaxed I felt and soon, I found myself happily pondering over the beautiful finds that lay hidden in the town that was still so far away. It was much after midnight that I arrived at the door of the Sara Vilas, my gracious hosts. Much of the resort was plunged in darkness, given the hour but the moon, now standing high in the sky, shed a hue of white on the green lawns and the plants as I made my way to the room accorded for me.

First impressions

Early next morning, I helped myself to a sumptuous breakfast from the lovely kitchen at the hotel. The car was waiting for me outside. I set out on a day of discovery. The first stop was the chowk in front of Saner Ram Ladiya. I almost immediately recognised it from the sets of the recently watched film, PK. The car came to halt right there and the driver left me to chatter away excitedly about the film. With bated breath I entered the Ram Ladiya. Painted all the way from the outside to the inside, each wall is a picture worth a million exclamations. I stared at length at each wall, wondering at the intricate detailing on each inch of the wall and how much of time and effort must have gone into the creation of such a marvel.

I had just exited the Ladiya and wondered if it would be a good idea to just loiter about and go wherever the road took me. I found a comfortable spot by a cold drink vendor a little ahead of the haveli. That’s where I met Ganesh Joshi, a local guide. While it was never his idea of a profession, he didn’t mind the extra income he could make by taking people around his home town. It was a great way to gather news of the town on an everyday basis. Turned out, he was modest. Not only was he charging me a meagre amount compared to what the regular guides charge – and they charge quite a lot – he was very well-known in his town. I was now in luck. He led me to the first of the painted havelis in Mandawa, Mohan Lal Saraf. The haveli looked every bit of its ancient self. Built almost 150 years ago and painted with images of Rajput culture and Krishna Leela, the haveli is a masterpiece. I immediately recognised a large painting of the king riding on an elephant. The elephant was decorated with tiny white flower motifs all over. It is one of the best known paintings of the region. Joshi informed me that it was this painting that inspired many replicas through the town. Leaving the Mohan Lal Saraf, I meandered through the dusty lanes, peering at every wall in the hope that a new surprise awaited me around the bend – and they did.

Touch of gold

When we finally got to Jhunjhunuwala Haveli, it could be easily seen that in those olden days the region had been quite abuzz with every household of any worth trying to outdo each other with its ornate painted walls. Although some of the havelis are now locked from the eyes of the inquisitive tourist, the decorated walls do not always hide the glorious history within them. From the balconies, chajjas, of the few havelis I had access to, I could find myself looking at an endless lane of homes with painted walls. Some curtained by a line of freshly washed clothes, some broken carefully to make space for an air-conditioner. From the outside, the Jhunjhunwala Haveli seemed like any other house of the region. A small inset in the large metal door acts as the entrance to the high walled house.

I find myself facing an elderly man, probably a housekeeper, coughing in the pale winter sun. He was sitting on a charpoy trying to say something urgent to the lady sitting by the door, peeling peas from their pods. The man looks at Joshi and smiles. I am presented to the man as a traveller from the big city. After a few questions, I inquire of the whereabouts of the owners of the haveli and am quite embarrassed to find out that the old man, still coughing on his charpoy, is the third generation to inherit the property. “My great grandfather was a very wealthy man and his riches were not restricted to money but also to children. He had many children and once the family business fell apart, the siblings started taking out whatever they could as their inheritance,” he says. “My grandfather and his son, my father, held on to the house while everyone else moved to the big city and built bigger mansions for themselves. My great grandfather was awarded a great amount of gold in his heydays. He used it as gold foil which he added on the walls of his sitting room. Today, our house is a great attraction for visitors because of my great grandfather’s whim.” I walked into the room as the new daughter-in-law led the way. “What we would have done without this room, I wonder,” she said. “We manage to get a decent sum from tourists who come to see it. My husband has a shop in the local market but it is not enough for our family.” The gilded room crafted by their great grandfather’s whim is a medium of income today.

Dust and shadows

My next stop was at the traditional four-walled stepwell. Apart from the painted mansions, it is these few standing stepwells that are a reminder of the town’s glorious past. “There are changing platforms on three of the corners for the men to change into fresh clothes or sit and talk. The women have an closed room in the last corner for changing. A small pool was marked for the children to bathe while the stepwell in itself was meant for pulling up water for the households,” informed Joshi. Though the stepwell is no longer in use today, it stands as a reminder of order that once prevailed here.

As I made my way to Castle Mandawa, where the royal family still resides in one section while the rest has been converted into a heritage hotel, I took in the feel of the place. Once lined with painted mansions and chattering families, Mandawa takes on a desolate look today. Far removed from the manicured experience at the hotel, Sara Vilas, the town was littered with filth along the alleys which were a turn off. The people live with pride of a bygone era, turning a blind eye to the need for the upkeep of the heritage around them. It is common to see neighbours, once relatives, squabbling over the number of tourists at their door. Joshi points out that not many Indians visit these areas; most of the visitors comprise students of art from international universities.

After a few moments of silence by the pool at the Castle Mandawa, I feel the urge to see the untold stories of the region. I am suddenly overcome with remorse at the loss of such a huge part of the cultural history as many of the walls lay unkempt. The paint was flaking off, leaving behind a trail of hideous forms and faces while the residents carried on, having taken their heritage for granted. There is pride in the history of the region, unfortunately, the people cannot afford the care of the private mansions anymore. I make my way back to the first haveli I had started my day with, drained completely of wide-eyed excitement. I rested under a tree and wondered how much of Mandawa would be left, if I returned.

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