“A Journey through Rajasthan in 1831,” with Ilay Cooper

To celebrate Ilay’s forthcoming book: PAINTING A DESERT and telling two remarkable stories


2 British officers, sent in to the desert, the community they discovered there, and the extraordinary culture that flourished as a result. And secondly of Ilay Cooper’s fascinating research to find and retell their tale, his own intrepid journeys through Rajasthan and his discovery of a unique community and its traditions.

In April 1831 Lt.Col. Lockett, then overseeing the kingdom of Bharatpur, was ordered to proceed on an expedition to Shekawati, an arid tract of land roughly the size of two English counties, in the middle of Rajasthan. A young engineer, mapping nearby, Lieutenant Boileau, accompanied him. Each man had a colourful background, poetic, eccentric and brave. Lockett was 50, an arabist, a wanderer at home in the east. Boileau only 24, with an artist’s eye, given to verse and adventure.

The British were keen to encourage trade to the area, along the North Indian trade routes, and had received complaints from a group of merchants that local barons had turned to banditry and were making life impossible.

It was Lockett’s expedition that led to greater British involvement, protection of these merchants and their trade routes, and the flourishing of their communities - to such an extent that these “Marwaris” as they are known, now own some 50% of all India’s wealth. Their rise was marked by the construction of astonishing buildings, each covered with figurative paintings. The extraordinary painted houses of Shekawati are a revelation, little known outside India. Flamboyant 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 merchants from Shekawati made vast fortunes brokering overseas trade and spent enormous sums competing with each other to build and decorate the most magnificent houses and temples.

In the late 1980s Ilay Cooper and a local friend, Rabu Sharma, set out to document Shekawati’s buildings for the Indian National Trust. During their research, they kept bumping into Lockett’s expedition. Ilay eventually found both Lockett’s and Boileau’s unpublished accounts and drawings of their journey, and a wealth of historical detail opened out. He was, for example, able to identify the foreign officers that were depicted in Shekawati’s murals. And it became clear just how far Lockett’s mission had led to Shekawati’s flowering.

Ilay’s book Painting a Desert is published next month by Niyogi Books of India. It juxtaposes the story of Lockett and Boileau with that of Ilay and Rabu as they work and travel through the same region. It is illustrated by more than 200 coloured photographs as well as some of Boileau’s maps and drawings.


Ilay Cooper

Ilay is a writer, photographer and historian. He has lectured at the British museum, the V & A, and the Courtauld Institute. He was born to a family with long Indian associations. Ilay first hitched into Asia in 1964, the first of ten overland journeys. In 1972, cycling across North India, he came upon the painted towns of Shekhawati in Rajasthan. Settling in Churu, which remains his base in India, he set out to explore the region, the painted buildings and their origin. He personally visited and recorded 2,260 buildings, travelling on a small motorcycle.

His books include “The Painted Towns of Shekawati” ( 3d edition); “Arts & Crafts of India”, 1996, and “ Traditional Buildings of India”, 1998, ( both Thames & Hudson); and “Painting a Desert”, 2013, (Niyogi Books).


Ilay’s books include “The Painted Towns of Shekawati” ( 3d edition); “Arts & Crafts of India”, 1996, and “ Traditional Buildings of India”, 1998, ( both Thames & Hudson); and “Painting a Desert”, 2013, (Niyogi Books).

2013Martin Keeley