Sunday, January 13, 2008

The elf from not-quite-xanadu

“Can’t go further. I want to go home. Mamma waiting, Monsieur… Arrivederci! Adios! Adios!” My guide was adamant. He threw a fervent glance at the wicker gate, the thornbush fence, and the lengthening shadows crawling across the stepwell. He looked at me, piteously. “Arre, kya hua? Scared?” I asked. “No monsieur, no… it is late, manne jaave dejo!” and with that our guide, all of eight years and 28 inches, jumped off the car and scampered away into the dusty haze. This was a strange place. . .

I had chased the clouds across a clear blue sky, over bumpy roads, past brown fields and blue bulls; and groves of burnt trees that looked like tall, gaunt lepers to reach Shekhawati, a Marwari cultural outpost in western Rajasthan. And why here? Well, to get even. A friend of mine recently returned from Khajuraho and couldn’t stop raving about the ‘sheer’ beauty of its temples and the unashamed cultural self awareness that they exude. But with Khajuraho overbooked, I left for what a little bird insisted was the next best thing – the frescoes of Shekhawati.

If perchance, one such bird happens to whisper the same in your ears, give it a warm smile, and then wring its neck and pluck its feathers till it squeals and confesses that it hasn’t got the foggiest idea because the truth is that Shekhawati has all the beauty and erotic charm of a decomposing corpse. Yes, there are some old havelis, and some beautifully restored ones too, with frescoes on their walls that are typical of the region –warriors, camels, queens and kings – but there is nothing breathtaking or awe inspiring about them. So if you’re going there for its frescoes, don’t bother, and yet go there you must for the little wonders that roam its streets.

Driving into Mandawa, central Shekhawati, I was hailed down by a pint sized waif. “Bonjour Monsieur! You want guide. I guide. I show Shekhawati… in Italian, French, German, Spanish and English… you want?” I couldn’t believe my ears. This little urchin would’ve struggled to dunk a basketball if I had a hoop around my waist; his snotty-nose seemed to have been running for so long that there were moraines etched under his nostrils; (Why didn’t he use a handkerchief? “bizhee, no time have”) and he rattled off the same sales pitch in the remaining languages (yes, yes I do understand a fair smattering of all four). I was stunned, as were a busload of German tourists who’d reached the same spot. This was Laloo, and he was in business straightaway. With all the confidence of a school teacher herding a bunch of kids, that little mite of a boy led the bunch of awestruck Germans into the narrow lanes of Mandawa. I tagged along...

Only to be shunted out - by the scruff of the neck. I had followed the Germans into an old haveli which Laloo promised had some spectacular “golden paintings”. But the caretakers – fair imitations of Hagar and Hilda ‘Horrible!’ – refused to unlock the hidden treasures till I moved out. ‘Hilda’ pointed at me and kept on a diatribe. Laloo, sympathy writ large on his face, urged me to leave. “Only for foreign peoples... she saying...” I should’ve felt what Gandhi felt that fateful day at the train station in South Africa, but then the only ‘revolution’ I’m good at is orbiting around my wife. Miserable, I sat down on a parapet and waited for the group. After sometime, the Germans, trooped out and Laloo came up, and with a sympathetic pat, rattled off some of north India’s choicest expletives in honour of the lady of the house. “No worrying, I show you Kamasutra...” The Kamasutra? Ho-hum, not that I was particularly keen, but now that I’d come all the way...But did he know the Kamasutra? “ Eroteek! I know!!” and with that he gestured, and revealed that the world of birds and the bees held no mysteries for this little devil. Ah, the end of innocence, but whose loss is it anyway? Cutting through the musing, Laloo dragged me by the hand, and took the Germans and me to a haveli, whose walls displayed amorous couples engaged in improbable congresses. Not bad, but no match for Khajuraho. Laloo sensed my disappointment. “No like? I show more... in Mukundgarh.” Oh well, but since I’d come all the way... So leaving the Germans behind, we drove towards Mukundgarh. En route, next to the highway, I saw a stepwell, and a wicker gate. It was dusk, and in the failing light, I could make out the contours of some old ruins... I stopped the car. This place almost called out to me, but Laloo looked nervous...

“Mamma..! Mamma waiting, Monsieur. I want to go home...” But hey, that’s another story...

The slip stream

Painted History

The tradition of fresco paintings goes back a long way, the oldest known fresco has been found in the island of Crete, dated to around 1500 B.C.

The art of fresco painting involves using natural pigments to paint walls and ceilings. The trick is to make a smooth batter of limestone, prepared in such a way that it takes about three or four days to set and dry, and during this time the painting is completed. This technique ensures longevity and makes sure that the natural colours come out fully. In India the oldest fresco paintings date back to around 200 B.C., found in the caves of Ajanta, these depict the life of Lord Buddha, as told in the Jataka Tales. Another example of fresco paintings in India are the ones found in the Brihadisvara temple, in 1931. Said to be commissioned around 1100 A.D. by the Chola dynasty, they were painted over when the Nayak dynasty came to power. From Shekhawati to the Sinai, frescoes remain as beautiful, emblematic witnesses to history and by preserving them, we retain a fragment of our past.


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