The Wall Paintings of Shekhawati, Rajasthan, with Ilay Cooper

Ilay Cooper is a writer, photographer and art historian. He has lectured at the British Museum, the V&A, and the Courtauld Institute

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The astonishing painted buildings of Shekhawati are a revelation. Little known outside India, they are an extraordinary artistic achievement. The murals decorate mansions, temples, caravanserais. They embrace Hindu mythology, folk tales, history, everyday life, animals, plants, erotica, foreigners and their contraptions, and a wealth of decorative designs.

The oldest murals are 17th century, but there was an explosion of building during the 19th Century as colonial trade expanded. The merchants from Shekhwawati made vast fortunes brokering overseas trade and spent enormous sums competing with each other to build and decorate the most magnificent houses and temples.

The descendents of this amazingly creative merchant community currently hold some 50% of India’s industrial capital. The steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, Britain's richest individual, is from the region.

Having first drawn attention to the wall paintings of Shekhawati in the 1970s, Ilay spent some ten years exploring the region and its murals. He was commissioned by the Indian National Trust to document Shekhawati’s buildings. In 2 ½ years, with the help of a local teacher, he visited 2260 buildings, travelling on a small motorcycle. His books include The Painted Towns of Shekhawati which is in its third edition.

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2010Martin Keeley