Well, I have always referred to Shekhawati as the “Open Art Gallery of the world” and recently I was proven right by none other than Mr. Ilay Cooper who has traveled over 2000 km on his cycle and documented over 2260 heritage Havelis in Shekhawati region in Rajasthan.
Ilay’s recent book, titled “Rajasthan – Exploring Painted Shekhawati” is part travelogue, part autobiography, and is mostly an account of uniquely painted frescos on Shekhawati Havelis.
During the early seventies of the last century, Ilay cycled into the rarely visited tiny desert towns in Northern Rajasthan and came across this hidden treasure of impressive mansions having their walls covered with vibrant paintings in all natural colours. He came back in 1975 and traveled to Churu, Sikar, and Jhunjhunu districts with a camera and captured images of these Havelis.
During this time, Ilay settled in Churu and made friends with Mr. Nand Kishore Choudhary, a local shopkeeper, and now the owner of Jaipur Rugs.
As I also hail from this Shekhawati region, I also am in deep love with these frescos. During all of my visits to my ancestral haveli in Fatehpur Shekhawati, I have always visited and admired various Havelis with interesting frescos and carvings. All the Havelis in Fatehpur are famous for their beautifully designed, carved, and painted interiors. Fatehpur in fact is an important constituent of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan which is often called “The Open Air Art Gallery”.
Shekhawati is an interesting area of towns of the triangle of Jaipur, Delhi, and Bikaner. This semi-desert region is a colourful fantasy having a fascination uniquely of its own. Shekhawati is the region where the streets are lined with Havelis painted in the nature of a vast open-air art gallery.
‘Shekhawati’ meaning ‘the land of Shekha’s clan’ derived its name from Rao Shekha(1433 A.D –1488 A.D) a scion of the kachhwaha family of Jaipur. Other main towns in this area are Jhunjhunu, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, and Mandawa.
Shekhawati’s magnificent Havelis entirely changed the monochromatic appearance of the region. The highlights of the Havelis, the frescoes are seen almost everywhere – on the facades, gateways, courtyard walls, parapets, and ceilings. The frescoes have varying themes, mythological, local legends, and hunting scenes gradually giving way to more modern themes like the arrival of the British in India, motor cars, airplanes, ships, telephones, gramophones, steam locomotives and trains, and balloons These historical and social frescoes have helped the region blossom into colourful profusion of art and life for almost two centuries from 1750 AD to 1930 AD.
Most of the Havelis in Shekhawati have been closed for decades; hence the frescos in these Havelis are still intact and as shining as they were 7-8 decades ago. A haveli which was opened after 75 years had some of the best frescos I have seen during my entire lifetime.
The Shekhawati region is slowly and steadily finding its well-deserved place on the tourism maps and more foreign tourists are getting attracted to the region. People from France and other European countries are the ones who are frequenting the area more and more.
Thanks to people like Ilay and others who are spreading the news about the Shekhawati region, my homeland is getting more popular day by day. Ilay Cooper was commissioned by INTACH to document the Havelis and as a result of his work and extensive travel through the regions, he wrote, illustrated, and drew the maps in The Painted towns of Shekhawati, a classic work, now in its third edition. The current attempt at a richly illustrated book, Rajasthan – Exploring Painted Shekhawati describing his adventures in the region is really commendable.
Ilay Cooper, author:
Ilay Cooper is a writer, photographer, art historian, lecturer, and more importantly a traveler. He studied Geology and Zoology in his home country England and now has made Churu his base in Rajasthan, India.
Jaipur Rugs, Nand Kishore Chaudhary (NKC)
NKC founded the idea of Jaipur Rugs in 1978 working beside 9 artisans on two looms. He started his business on the principles of dignity. Over the years his simple idea has grown into a network of 40,000 artisans across India and clientele across 40 countries of the world who subscribe to a common philosophy of responsible manufacturing. NKC’s greatest work has been in subverting centuries-old practices that shunned the poor, women, and artists. He has brought dignity back to the craft of rug making.