Save the Shekhawati Frescoes: A Call to Fund an International Conservation Workshop in Rajasthan, India

Save the Shekhawati Frescoes: A Call to Fund an International Conservation Workshop in Rajasthan, India

January 6, 2023 | Author: Harpreet Tanday

India is altogether history, spirituality, diversity, food, colors, perfume, festivals, craftsmanship, authentic and stunning materials, traditions and high level modernization. When I left India at the age of 11, migrating from Punjab to Italy in 1999, of course I did not know this. Back then, and in the years to come, India was just an overwhelming pressure cooker of mixed feelings with a lot of uncertainty about the future. 

Growing up in one of the most beautiful countries, Italy, where everyday life unfolds amongst majestic historical buildings and art galleries, and people are so aware and proud of their history, developing an interest in art history was inevitable. I was intrigued by the skills and mastery shown by wall paintings masters such as Michelangelo, Raffaello, and how they combined materials to make them last for centuries; this led me to Wall paintings Conservation Science. 

I always thought that Italy and India were quite similar in many aspects: ancient history, strong religious presence, beautiful language with multiple dialects, delicious and authentic food and passionate people with great skill sets. To my surprise, I discovered in 2017 another similarity; India has one of the largest numbers of frescoes after Italy, all located in the region of Shekhawati in Northern Rajasthan. 

The Shekhawati region is famous for its painted Havelis (palatial mansions) dating back to the 19th and early 20tht century, tangible symbols of the then flourishing trade of wool, spices, opium and rice. In this gigantic ‘open air gallery’, a simple walk in any of the towns of Shekhawati can transport you back in time, with the painted façades of the Havelis and their skilfully sculpted doors a testimony of the great wealth of the merchants (Marwaris) who owned them. Their iconography is wonderful: stories from Ramanaya and Mahabharata, scenes from everyday life, local festivals such as Dandiya, and historical scenes from the British colonial era. 

The ‘arayish’ painting technique, unique to the Region, is very similar to the Italian ‘fresco lustro’ technique. Here also, the paintings are started on a wet plaster and finished when the plaster has dried. The outcome is a very smooth surface, composed of lime, marble powder, powdered seashell, curd and natural pigments. Today, only a few craftsmen still practice it.

Unfortunately, the mid-20th century marked the decline of these beautiful buildings as the merchant families gradually emigrated to Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. As a result, a lot of Havelis were abandoned or poorly maintained. Despite the region being recently revived by emerging tourism, the wall paintings are quickly disappearing.

Discovering these unique Indian frescoes paintings proved quite a stepping stone for me as it brought me back to India after 17 years. It gave me the chance to reconnect with my Indian roots, and to connect with people. This time there was no space for mixed feelings, but a genuine sentiment of belonging. 

Today, I have the privilege to conserve these unique wall paintings as part of an international and multicultural team of expert conservators, architects and historians, “The Shekhawati Project” (TSP). We work with Indian and international students and professionals, and have delivered since 2016 annual workshops in Shekhawati integrating Indian and European approaches to the preservation of the wall paintings. Our goal is to preserve Indian heritage because we think it Matters. 

After the long pandemic pause, our team is planning a 6-weeks workshop on the façade of the Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli, Mandawa, starting for the next Shekhawati festival (10-11 February 2023) to ensure maximum exposure and interaction with the public and showcase local skills and cultural assets. Mandawa, one of the most dynamic towns in Shekhawati, is also home to some of the most marvelous Havelis in the Region. You can help their conservation by financing this workshop with your donation. 

Our team will be working on an exquisite 19the century scene, figuring on the cover of the reference book on the Region [The painted towns of Shekhawati, by Ilay Cooper, Prakash books India, New Delhi, 2009.], depicting ‘Elephants carrying 2 princes and a mahout’, above a train carrying crowds of people. Elephants were symbols of wisdom and power (the very important people traveled on elephants), and here they are represented next to another mode of transport brought by colonial foreigners. 

Once completed, the Elephants project will be used as a flagship façade for conservation fundraising efforts. 

The Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli is currently undergoing a major renovation to turn it into a Luxury Hotel (completion scheduled 2023), employing the best available expertise in architectural and painting conservation, together with traditional craftsmanship and modern technology. Our team will run the conservation treatment in public (street level) so it can be observed and enjoyed by all the local community. We will also publish a small brochure and souvenir postcards about the Conservation treatment of the ‘Elephant’ scene, designed and printed locally and sold in the Region. 

With this high-profile Conservation Project, we will draw interest to our Indian heritage, contribute to regional economic benefit through tourism and foster local skills’ revival and transmission. 

Please support us to implement the workshop and our mission in training locals for the Conservation of these unique painted jewels. Visit our website here for more information about the TSP association and our conservation efforts.

Harpreet Tanday is an Indian-Italian private conservator, based in Melbourne (Australia). She has a Masters specializing in wall paintings, stone, stucco and architectural surfaces conservation graduated from SUPSI (Scuola Universitaria della Svizzera Italiana), Switzerland; Bachelor from the Conservation department in “G.B. Cignaroli”, Verona, Italy. She worked as a conservator on several projects on frescoes, wall paintings and historical buildings in Italy, Switzerland, India and Australia. She is the technical director and co-founder of wall paintings and street art conservation business called Delta Conservation based in Melbourne. She is passionate about traditional and modern materials and diagnostic analysis investigation.