The Shekhawati Project restoration team visited the cities of Mandawa and Ramgarh in the Shekhawati region last week. It was an opportunity to see other havelis, some converted into hotels, some untouched and others currently under renovation. We went there also to get an idea about the original painting technology, materials and stylistic similarities between our wall paintings and some other local realities.
From left to right: Léa, Apolline, Giovanna, Malou, Monica, Harpreet, Paola & Meret
We first stopped in Mandawa, which is a place with more tourist appeal, and where there are very beautiful havelis. To start with, a local guide showed us the Hotel Radhika Haveli. One of the special things we could observe was that the second courtyard has been covered with a transparent blue roof as a rain shelter. This, working as a coloured filter, has modified the colours all over the walls. Besides, we had the impression of being in a living room. We noticed also that the Arayish was of an ochre colour instead of white, the one that we are used to seeing.
Continuing our trip, we reached another haveli, this time under restoration. It was a very interesting opportunity to observe the local modus operandi. We saw the result of a previous intervention done with cement as well as the current one where local workers were using a mortar composed of lime and crushed bricks, filling it up with small fragments of local stone. This was applied as a preparatory layer according to the local traditional technology and using traditional materials.
On the subject of historical building restoration, all over the world we face the problem of the use of cement either for wall reconstruction or for the treatment of plaster lacunae, i.e. all gaps in the unity of the plaster layer that generally covers walls. This plaster, as in the case of some older havelis, can be decorated with frescoes, or, even better, with paintings carried out when the plaster was still wet without using any binding medium, but fixing them through the chemical-physical reactions that take place during the setting and drying time of the plaster components. We therefore understand that when the plaster surfaces are already dry, the only way to decorate them is to apply colours with a binding medium, and in history we have a wide range of materials that have been used for this purpose. In the havelis we have visited to date, for example, the traditional way of painting over an already dry plaster, was to use the gum from the Pipal tree as a binding medium.
Further, concerning the original materials and technology used in the oldest havelis, we could see that traditionally several layers of mortar were applied on top of the brick or stone walls. All were lime-based. The foundation layers show a mixture of brick crunch and lime, with different crunch dimensions: from the bigger ones close to the wall, to a coarse powder close to the final plaster layers, called Arayish. These final plaster layers are made from a mixture of lime and marble powder, plus some organic additives that can vary due to the master's tradition. To the very last of those, the colour is generally applied before it is too dry. All this system of materials works very well in humid conditions as we can see from Roman era ruins and aqueducts, while preserving a very good range of porosity.
On the other hand, from decades of studies and on-site observation in very many countries around the world we can definitely be sure that applying a cement-based mortar close to or even on top of an old lime-based plaster leads to a much quicker decay of the latter. All this happens mainly because of the high quantity and quality of the salts present in the cement, as well as its very low porosity range.
Besides, on this site we were able to see the traditional stratigraphy both of the wall building and the painting layers. All this very interesting information will be collected into the core part of The Shekhawati Project.
We observed some similarities, in terms of the original technology and the use of materials - as well as some resemblance in the state of conservation - with the frescoes of Le Prince Haveli.
We even got the chance to talk to Shyam Singh, a local artist who, over the years, has executed a number of Arayish frescoes. He was happy to share a lot of information with us on historical pigments and gums, their use, and the places where they come from.
Ramgarh is a place where in every street you can see plenty of havelis and some of them are really huge! There, we found many correlation from the architectural and decorative point of view with the havelis we know here in Fatehpur; but surprisingly some were completely different.
We were able to go inside the Seth Ramgopal Poddar Ki Haveli in which the third generation of the family is currently living. From the rooftop there was a wonderful view with a lot of havelis; many of them were almost abandoned or in very bad condition. It's amazing to think how wonderful this place must have been, just one century ago.
As far as we understand from our ongoing and updating search for information for the project, the traditional method the Rajasthani people have used in the renovation of the painted decorations of their havelis has always been (and indeed remains the most popular) to over-paint all surfaces, whether they were in a good state of conservation, faded, or just covered with ages of dirt. The new aspect of the question, and the big challenge of The Shekhawati Project, is that by considering the havelis as part of the Rajasthan historical heritage, we need to give importance to their originality, not only in terms of the shapes and decorative motifs of the buildings or the fact that they are largely decorated - as apparently has been up to now the main approach to most restoration intervention - but also in terms of the constituent materials. From our point of view, in fact, the preservation of the historical, original way of doing things is paramount. This implies the knowledge of the way the materials perform, as well as the cultural background, which give value to our heritage and build bridges to future generations.
From left to right: Apolline, Léa, Giovanna, Monica, Meret, Malou, Paola, Harpreet & Joël in the middle.