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The medieval wall canvas of Bundi’s Garh Palace

Efforts are on to preserve the colourful paintings of this labyrinthine Rajasthani palace that depict royal life and mythology

The Raas Leela painted on the ceiling of Badal Mahal.
The Raas Leela painted on the ceiling of Badal Mahal. (Photo: Samuel Whittaker)

I arrived in Bundi on a late winter afternoon after an exhausting 6-hour bus ride from Jaipur. Despite being the district headquarters, the town wears a medieval look, with stepwells, noisy bazaars, fortified hills, old havelis and numerous temples dominating the view. Its narrow lanes, flanked by houses and shops, are not designed for cars, though it isn’t unusual to find an autorickshaw, an SUV, a pedestrian and a cow fighting for space.

I was there for a chance to see the famed medieval wall paintings in the company of art conservators from The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, there on their last visit as part of a documentation and conservation project organized by the New York-based Leon Levy Foundation in association with the current custodians—the erstwhile Alwar royal family. The next morning, I followed the team to Garh Palace, struggling up the incline in my inappropriate shoes.

An intricately carved arched gateway called Hathia Pol (elephant gate) leads to this group of palaces, built on the steep side of a hill. Inside is a labyrinthine layout of palatial rooms and hallways, which prompted British writer Rudyard Kipling to remark in the 19th century: “ build for themselves in uneasy dreams—the work of Goblins more than of men". First built in the 16th century and added to over the years, the Garh Palace is located at a much lower elevation than the 14th century Taragarh fort and palaces located atop the same hill, overlooking the town like elder statesmen.

At first glance, the private residences of the royal family in the Garh Palace, with the jutting-out balconies known as jharokhas, look drab, as though tired from years of negligence. But that was forgotten once I visited Badal Mahal, a room on the second floor of a palace built during the reign of Rao Bhoj (1585-1607). It is like a kaleidoscope, every inch of its walls covered with paintings that are the oldest in this complex. Above a band of red at the bottom of the walls are the ragamala (a miniature painting style depicting ragas) paintings. Atop them is a bank of scenes featuring hunters and wild animals. On the ceiling are scenes from courtly life and Hindu mythology, and portraits of Hindu gods. At the very centre of the ceiling is a scene from the Raas Leela, showing Lord Krishna surrounded by gopis.

Using a torch and with direction from Samuel Whittaker, a member of the conservation team, I could see the details of these magnificent paintings. The compositions are not structured, with a large hunting scene showing two kings on horseback hunting a tiger adjacent to a miniature of mahouts atop their elephants. It is almost as though the wall has been used as a canvas for experimentation. The brush work is meticulous, and on close examination, one can see details such as the facial hair of the warriors. Some of the paintings are Orientalist in style, hinting at foreign influences, while others suggest a Deccani influence. Whittaker says the paintings are among the most significant in Rajasthan, owing to their artistic quality and level of experimentation.

A floor below Badal Mahal is Phool Mahal, a palace with a columned hall and residential area. The hallway is painted with a procession of Bundi kings at the head of their armies. The presence of British soldiers indicates that the paintings are from a later date, sometime in the 17th century. The niches in the room are painted with portraits of Bundi’s rulers and the walls vividly describe scenes from Holi celebrations and other festive occasions. The paintings in Chhattar Mahal, built by the king Rao Chattarsal in the latter half of the 16th century, depict courtly scenes and Hindu mythology. Many are decorated with gold. Amarilli Rava, the lead conservator, explains that it is hard to date the paintings in Chattar Mahal owing to the multiple interventions made as part of restoration efforts.

From Sitaram, a guard at the complex, I learnt that a large part of the Garh Palace is infested with bats and monkeys. Areas such as the Anirudh Mahal, Zenana, Nari Kunj are not accessible to the public because the problem is severe enough to constitute a safety hazard. He also tells me that the palace had been vandalized by locals in search of treasure after the royal family moved out after independence.

Located in Umaid Palace, Chitrashala was conceived as an art school by Rao Umaid Singh during his reign. The paintings there are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The prominent use of indigo and green made me feel as though I was in a magical forest. A floral design divides the wall into tiers, with elephant fighting scenes in red and white adorning the bottom. It was a pleasant surprise to see several paintings depicting scenes from the lives of royal women—smoking the hookah, playing board games, dancing with friends, birds and animals. Scale has been used interestingly to depict dominating characters. For instance, male servers in paintings featuring royal women are smaller in size. In another scene showing the Govardhan mountain scene, the elephants are smaller than the cows. Although the paintings in Chitrashala are enchanting, they seem too well structured.

Over three seasons in successive years, the conservators have documented, analysed and carried out emergency interventions on the paintings in Badal Mahal and Chhattar Mahal. However, the work is far from complete and attempts are being made to secure funding to continue the conservation efforts. For me, the visit was a sobering experience. I had seen much to marvel at, but the experts had also shown me how the paintings are fast deteriorating. It is always tempting to think of our heritage as timeless, but without proper conservation our next generation might not be able to see these wonderful artistic endeavours of our ancestors.

Basav Biradar is a researcher, writer and documentary film-maker.

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