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Exploring Painted Shekhawati

By Ilay Cooper
Hardcover; 285pp
Niyogi Books, 2014
₹2995 / £50 / $90

Part travelogue, part autobiography, but mostly an account of the unique painted havelis of Shekhawati region, Ilay Cooper’s recent book doesn’t disappoint. His earlier book THE PAINTED TOWNS OF SHEKHAWATI remains a bestseller. 

Cooper cycled into the rarely visited tiny desert towns of northern Rajasthan and discovered some impressive mansions, their walls covered with vibrant paintings. On a subsequent trip to India in 1975, he once again travelled through Rajasthan – this time to Churu district and neighbouring Shekhawati (Jhunjhunu and Sikar districts) with a camera, he found that such painted havelis were peculiar to small towns in those three districts. These havelis enclosed one or more courtyards, their walls covered with bright paintings. Later, he could find no illustrations of such painted houses and no one seemed aware of them.

Ilay settled in Churu, partly because he made friends with Nand Kishor Chaudhary, a local shopkeeper. From there, he began to study the buildings, their background and their paintings. This book is a result of his painstaking research on painted havelis.

The Shekhawati region, known as the open-air art gallery of Rajasthan, lies in the roughly triangular area between Delhi, Jaipur, and Bikaner, and encompasses the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, and Churu. A drive through this vast, barren, almost surreal landscape, dotted with khejri trees and their outstretched branches, can be oddly hypnotising. The wide, open uninhabited spaces seem light years away from the madness of Indian cities. Shekhawati is Rajasthan’s best-kept secret – there are over 2,000 painted havelis (mansions) dispersed in its small desert towns - most were built in the mid and late 19th century by members of the rich Marwari community of the area.  Some of these heritage mansions are even older. The exterior and interiors of these buildings were richly decorated with figurative and floral art in bright colours. Less was not more at the time.

Members of the Marwari community from the Shekhawati area migrated for business reasons to distant shores of India – Calcutta and Bombay – in the 19th century during the British Raj. Those were the financial centres at the time and that’s where money was to be made. Marwaris are known for their keen business sense and quite a few from these tiny desert towns became successful and influential tycoons and industrialists. Birlas, Modis, Piramals, Singhanias, Poddars, and Ruias are all from Shekhawati. Back in the 19th century, these early pioneers made their wealth in the cities and sent some of it back home to build and enrich their havelis with art work which ranged from amorous and folk art to mythological depiction of stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But the earliest murals were funded by local barons.

Cooper was commissioned by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to document the havelis and, aided by a local teacher, Ravindra Sharma, worked from 1985 to 1987.

As a result of his work and extensive travel though the region, he wrote, illustrated and drew the maps for THE PAINTED TOWNS OF SHEKHAWATI, the classic work, now in its third edition. This is followed now by the richly illustrated RAJASTHAN EXPLORING PAINTED SHEKHAWATI describing his adventures in the region.

About the author
Writer, photographer, art historian, lecturer, and more importantly a traveller – Ilay Cooper was raised and schooled in Swanage, in the Isle of Purbeck, in the centre of the south coast of England. This region remains his home. He studied Geology and Zoology at London University. Ilay has spent more than fifteen years living and travelling in South Asia, mostly in India. He travelled aimlessly throughout the subcontinent during his first visits. After discovering Shekhawati’s wall paintings in 1972, he made Churu, Rajasthan, his base.


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