A glimpse into history through wall art

Shekhawati paintings

A glimpse into history through wall art
A trip to the culturally rich Rajasthan always leaves me fascinated. This time around, it was the Shekhawati paintings. These unique wall paintings adorning the spectacular havelis are not only distinct, but serve as an introduction to the history of the place too, as the images depicted have changed according to the leadership that was in place around the time of its painting.

In effect, if some havelis have abstract designs probably painted during the rule of the Mughals, some walls are adorned with designs depicting the Europeans, probably painted when the British ruled India. However, popular designs were on traditional Indian subjects including scenes from mythology and local legends.

The havelis, home to these unique paintings, probably built in the 19th century, belong to the local trading community, known as the Marwaris. This trading community, which had migrated to different parts of India in search of fortune, is believed to have got their havelis constructed, and the walls painted in accordance with their riches. No wonder, the status of the haveli owner was reflected in the size of the haveli and the intricacy of the wall paintings. 

The artists behind these paintings hailed from the kumhars (potters) caste, and were locally known as chiteras. Alternatively, they were also called chejaras (masons) as they were involved in both painting and building the havelis. They etched the desired designs on the walls with sharp sticks and painted on the wet plaster, so that the colours blended well with the wet plaster, and looked naturally vibrant.

The colours used were vegetable and plant dyes mixed in lime water. For instance, while red stone powder was used for red colour, kajal was used for black, yellow clay for yellow ochre, indigo for blue, and so on.

Slowly but surely, both the designs and the process of painting underwent changes for the better. With the advent of photography, these talented chiteras started employing three-dimensional effects in their paintings with the use of shadow. This is not all. Natural dyes were replaced by the chemical ones imported from Europe and Germany, which gave these chiteras the advantage of painting their designs on the dry plaster, thereby resulting in finer paintings whose lines were sharper.

While we, outsiders, find ourselves awe-struck by the sheer workmanship and uniqueness of this wall art, it is shocking to see that little is being done to preserve it. These wall frescoes are not only battling the ravages of time, but also sheer human neglect. I tried capturing as much as I could in my little camera, but much needs to be done if the magnificence of this wall art has to be experienced by our future generations.

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