The Shekhawati region, in Northern Rajasthan, India, is home to a magnificent painted architectural heritage, dating from 19th and early 20th century when it was a commercially flourishing area. Of the 2000 painted Haveli (mansions), now only half survive, most of them in poor condition. The Shekhawati Project, created in 2016, aims to integrate Indian and European approaches to the preservation of the frescoes, and to raise awareness of urban management issues through showcasing local conservation sites. The Project acts on two main areas: interdisciplinary conservation workshops employing international students and graduates in architecture and conservation; and help the local community to advocate for sensible re use of buildings and revival of local skills, in a holistic approach that integrates heritage monuments into modern life needs.
Being aware that urban planning and heritage conservation are intrinsically linked, we advocate for the region’s economic revival through development of sustainable tourism, in close liaison with local entrepreneurs, to preserve traditional skills and promote adapted reuse of the buildings for the local community. This would allow the preservation of painted ensembles. The project works with its regional connections to lobby local governments to implement protective measures for the monuments, including town infrastructures and city services such as waste management, which impact directly on the condition of the buildings and their frescoes. Advocacy activities include public presentations of the project’s conservation of the murals as a first step to explain the potential worth of the Shekhawati paintings; it also brings to light the necessity of addressing the environmental problems affecting them.
Workshops involving young women
Through international collaboration we expose good conservation practice as an incentive for Haveli owners (often living away from the region) to conserve and rehabilitate their properties. We organise interdisciplinary workshops with students and graduates from conservation programs and architecture programs, from India, Europe and Australia, to work on the local frescoes. These students gain practical expertise by conserving the paintings and experience different concepts of authenticity across continents, broadening their understanding of conservation.
We encourage young women's involvement at every stage of the project, in order to contribute to ther professionalisation and broader empowerment.
WHY THE SHEKHAWATI REGION ?
From mid 18th to late 19th century, the Shekhawati region was the meeting point for opium, cotton and spices caravans from the Middle East, China and India. The Indian merchants, the Marwari, are still a prominent class in Indian society - owning half the assets of modern Indian economy. They built decorated Haveli to display their fortune. When commerce moved to the ports of Bombay and Calcutta, the region was gradually abandoned as the owners left their mansions in the care of local families, with little means to maintain them. Neglect and the harsh climate of North Rajasthan have resulted in the monuments’ state of disrepair.
A unique heritage
These exceptional Haveli are covered with frescoes on both interior and exterior walls, creating an extraordinary open air art gallery - a witness to the splendour of an era. They are made with the ‘fresco lustro’ technique unique to the region on a very smooth render called ‘arayish’ that is polished for hours after painting. Only a few craftsmen still practice the arayish technique, which is at risk of disappearing. The frescoes’ iconography is also unique, combining religious themes with the history through scenes of daily life that include European traders, new modes of transport and inventions like the phonograph.
Why is this heritage disappearing?
Many frescoes are rapidly deteriorating, not being maintained and thus becoming casualties of local real-estate conflicts, poor waste management and lack of interest from the owners’ large families. Local restorations have replaced traditional materials with cement, creating further conservation issues. The region nevertheless draws a large number of tourists curious to see the painted monuments. At present, there is a growing interest in protecting and preserving them; the Shekhawati project was created in this context.