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visual culture

Saraswati on the Rhine

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GODS WITHOUT BORDERS: Saraswati seated on a swan flies over the Rhine against a backdrop of the Rheinstein Castle

The murals and collages of the Shekhavati region of northeastern Rajasthan hold a peculiar fascination for Jyotindra Jain, former director of Delhi's Crafts Museum and founder professor and dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He stumbled upon them while travelling in the region 20 years ago and has made it his life's work to collect and study these unique images which, while being unabashedly populist and effortlessly kitschy, provide a valuable post-colonial narrative of popular Indian visual culture.

When he first saw a couple of collages hanging in a dealer's shop in Ramgarh in Shekhavati, Jain was convinced they conveyed important cultural and political messages. "It immediately occurred to me that the medium of the collage was being used here to translocate the leelas (games) of Krishna to another landscape and that the political collages had ideological agendas, " recalls Jain, who was in Bangalore recently to deliver a lecture on Shekhavati art organised by the Tasveer Foundation.

Yet the images had obviously been devalued in the land of their origin. "When I asked the dealer to show me all the collages he had, he scoffed at me and called me mad... he felt I had lowbrow taste. He was expecting a scholar like me to concentrate on miniature paintings or classical jewellery, " recalls Jain. He managed to procure the seven collages in the dealer's collection and started studying them and their patrons, the Vaishnava Agarwals of the region, in earnest. He travelled to towns and tiny hamlets in the Shekhavati region, visited every possible haveli and dealer in these towns. "I accumulated 25 to 30 collages - each one telling a story of its patrons and their beliefs, as well as their political ideology. It became a great pleasure trip as the pieces began to fall in place, " says Jain.

The story he pieced together is this: Aggarwal traders started migrating to this previously obscure corner of Rajasthan around the 1830s from Bhiwani in Haryana to benefit from the geographical advantage of Shekhavati, which was strategically situated on the trade route between Gujarat and Calcutta. After Surat fell to the Marathas in the early 19th century, the central route between East and West was blocked, and trade started flowing via Shekhavati. The traders established homes and offices in Calcutta as well and were exposed to a Western aesthetic and modern novelties produced by the industrial age. This had a profound impact on their visual culture, and wealthy merchants began commissioning artists to create murals in their houses depicting a mish-mash of Indian and colonial life.

The murals found in the havelis of Shekhavati towns like Lakshmangarh, Churu, Bissau and Mandawa mainly depict artefacts from colonial life, such as trains, cars, gramophones, mechanical toys, rifles, portraits, Western furniture and Europeans as seen through the eyes of the natives. A detail from a mural found by Jain in Sikkar, for instance, shows a white woman holding a child in her arms as well as a bottle of wine and what looks like a lit cigar. Another from a haveli in Fatehpur shows King George V 'handing over' freedom to Bharat Mata. In terms of attitudes towards colonialism, Jain finds these rather telling.

The collages come across as more straightforward and merely decorative - at least initially. Most of them were created by pasting cut-out figures from one source onto prints from a different source. In one category of collages, the backgrounds are German prints of European and occasionally American landscapes - the Alps, the river Rhine, American pastoral scenes - on which figures cut out from prints made in Calcutta are pasted. So you have Radha and Krishna frolicking in an Alpine landscape or a figure of Saraswati on a flying swan homing in on the river Rhine (in the background one can see the Rheinstein Castle).

In the other category, Nathdwara hand-painted pictures of landscape and architecture are used as background while the cut-out figures are from prints made by the legendary printers SS Brij Basi & Sons. Nathdwara paintings were also heavily influenced by English landscape and manor painters and feature manicured lawns, fountains, tree-lined boulevards and lamp-posts. In the Shekhavati collages, Radha and Krishna can be seen listening to a gramophone sitting on a lawn or, as in one popular collage, Krishna's vastraharan scene with the gopis (milkmaids) is being played out in what is clearly a depiction of a private swimming pool.

The incongruous juxtaposition of these elements and their varied provenance are not the only factors that make these collages interesting. "These incongruous settings could represent celestial spaces;an 'elsewhere' that is not found in the immediate surroundings of the painter or the patron, " explains Jain. "It's as if they are saying, surely these beings would not co-habit mundane settings with us ordinary mortals. So the Alpine scenery or the American pastoral scene is an extraordinary setting for extraordinary beings. "

Going a step further, Jain draws an audacious but not far-fetched parallel between these and vintage Bollywood songs, where the hero and heroine are often transported, in a matter of seconds, to the Swiss Alps. "In these song-anddance numbers, too, the backdrop is not a real place but 'a screen on to which emotions can be projected', as (the German film studies expert) Till Brockmann put it, " says Jain. "They are places where the characters can move incognito, shedding Indian inhibitions. There are traces of this in the Shekhavati collages as well. "

Today, the fascinating arts of Shekhavati have few takers. The havelis are crumbling and the murals have been quietly fading away. The area's economic importance has dwindled over the years, and with it, the patronage it once gave to art. "Very few owners of the havelis are interested in restoring the murals, " says Jain. "Not too many collages have survived either, as most of the material from the interior of these havelis has been sold off over the last three to four decades. "

Reader's opinion (2)

Krishna SarbadhikaryJul 2nd, 2012 at 10:32 AM

Very interesting & quite a fascinating read about the kitschy wall art in Shekhawati trader's homes during colonial times

Himanshu MuniJun 30th, 2012 at 17:26 PM

A correction:Surat never fell to Maratha.Shivaji Maharaj attacked and looted the city seven times to fight against Aurangzeb.Shekhavati frescos also came to light through reports published in The Times of India.The intention was to recall what earlier generations had projected.-Himanshu Muni.

 
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