I know I am not admiring at Mona Lisa at the Louvre or wandering on the streets of Met; but there is something tantalizing in these streets which is making me do the comparison. It is not Sistine Chapel or any art museum of Paris, but it is surely an open art gallery. It is not a mural on the wall but a mansion full of them and a village full of such mansions. Tucked away in northern Rajasthan, in the districts of Churu and Jhunjhunu, is this outdoor art gallery or the Shekhawati region. Shekhawati was once a cradle of India’s richest families who built these grand havelis and decorated them with frescos of such jaw dropping ideas and details. Though the Marwari diaspora has now dispersed across India, their marvels remain in Shekhawati awaiting discovery.
Shekhawati still breathes in its finest painted traditions. The rich Marwari families brought some of the finest European and Indian artists together to bring alive their walls. These walls were enlivened with artistic retellings of Indian epics and fables, murals of locomotives to depict a rail journey for citizens, Europeans in a horse carriage or taking off in a hot air balloon, trade treaties between Indian rulers and French and British merchants, playful depictions of Radha and Krishna, Rajasthani love story of Dhola-Maru and even scenes from Kamasutra. In these havelis, through baithaks or sitting room, ornate silver hookahs, Belgian glass chandeliers, stinted glasses imbued with folksy perspectives and tales, arched gateways, courtyards and durbars; fresco art was celebrated and thrived with family’s growing wealth and prosperity. And this didn’t end at frescos and havelis, the region saw development of many structures from architecturally well laid schools to stepwells to ornate temples as a result of educational and cultural philanthropy of these rich merchants.