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Shekhawati wall paintings and the art of mythological imagination

Jesus Christ contemplates, puffing a cigar. Ram and Sita are off to a spin in a vintage convertible, and who should be at the wheel but Lakshman. Ganesh strikes up spirited melody on a concertina.

Those surreal twists to mythology are actually creative bursts of art, brought alive as iconic wall paintings of Shekhawati.

The art sees an easy intermingling between new technologies and the divine.

Shekhawati art sees an easy intermingling between new technologies and the divine. Saumya Agarwal

Shekhawati is a region in Rajasthan that is famous for its heavily muraled buildings. The region is made up of several towns with thousands of painted buildings that include havelis, temples, shops and cenotaphs. Most of these buildings were financed by Marwari merchant families, who made their money conducting business with the caravan trade that passed through the region. Later, these families also traded with the British, primarily in cotton, jute and opium, which brought them tremendous wealth. This in turn helped set up the most prolific period of painting in the region.

The paintings are distinct in art and imagination, a look at the mural of Jesus Christ smoking a cigar underlines, for instance. Christ has his right hand up in benediction but an imaginative artist, possibly sensing some sort of a lack, has inserted a cigar between the uplifted fingers. Interpretations may vary from regarding this as an act of misrecognition, a fanciful addition, or satirical subversion. Whichever way you choose to look at it, the artistic inventiveness makes the wall paintings of Shekhawati unique.

Earliest examples of the paintings, from the middle of the eighteenth century, were executed by painters from artistic ateliers in Jaipur. By the second half of the nineteenth century, with increase in demand for decorated buildings, many locals, particularly the kumhar (potter) community, were commissioned to decorate the walls. This not only resulted in a wider variety of styles, but also brought in a certain freedom of expression, unshackled as these painters were from more classical imperatives.

The wall painting tradition has lasted until the middle of the twentieth century. Saumya Agarwal

The wall painting tradition has lasted until the middle of the twentieth century. Saumya Agarwal

The artists fell back on a variety of sources for inspiration, and the paintings seamlessly capture the effects of novel commodities, technologies and images that made their way into the region middle of the nineteenth century onward. Depictions of trains, planes, bicycles, cars and gramophones, mixed with more traditional religious imagery, therefore abound on these walls.

What strikes you is the fact that these images not only share the same canvas — the walls of Shekhawati buildings — but also often intermingle with fascinating results such as gods listening to gramophones, riding cars, or playing musical instruments.

It has often been argued that the advent of modernity has resulted in a schism between the sacred and the secular, particularly in the West, with these categories increasingly being defined in opposition to each other. If that be the case, the wall paintings of Shekhawati challenge such an assumption. One sees a seamless blending of the assuredly secular technology with images of divinity here.

This easy intermingling between new technologies and the divine also had to do with the element of the spectacular that was associated with these technologies. This, because often the way these technologies travelled was first through an image, with the actual product following much later. In fact, some depictions of novel inventions were based purely on the apocryphal that rendered a quaint quotient to them. This is seen in a painting of a couple in a hot air balloon, for instance. In this image, one can see the man blowing air into the balloon in an attempt to keep it aloft!

The wall painting tradition lasted until the middle of the twentieth century. Around that time, majority of the Marwari families gradually moved away from the area to metropolitan centres like Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. With the demand for wall paintings ending, the painters also took to other professions. Thus ended this very singular tradition of art, almost as suddenly as it had started.

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Updated Date: Feb 06, 2019 17:48:50 IST

Updated: February 6, 2019 — 5:03 pm
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