by Saumya Agarwal, India Foundation for the Arts
Before starting my PhD at Heidelberg University, I had been a literary studies scholar. For my PhD, I chose to research the wall paintings of Shekhawati in Rajasthan. Unsure of which academic discipline this research should be pursued under, I was guided by Professor Monica Juneja, who encouraged me to conduct this study under the aegis of transcultural studies, supporting me by graciously accepting a student with no prior training in art history. True to the theoretical aspects of transculturality, her guidance allowed me to create research that is not neatly contained within the analytical and methodological boundaries that define disciplines.
Her own scholarship has been instrumental in familiarizing me not only with art historical analytical frameworks but the possibility of analysing the visual with and beyond these frames.
In this article, I would like to discuss an idea that Professor Juneja has engaged with previously—the layered multiplicity of architectural memory.[i] For this purpose, I will briefly analyse the mural programme decorating a mid-eighteenth century chatri (cenotaph), from North East Rajasthan, and its intertextuality with the performed tradition involving painted scrolls known as pars.
Sardul Singh’s Chatri at Parsurampura
A 1750 chatri commemorates the chief of Jhunjhunu, Sardul Singh. There are two significant political developments linked to Sardul Singh. Firstly, he was instrumental in re-establishing Shekhawat rule in the Shekhawati region, of which Jhunjhunu was a fiefdom. Secondly, he established a new way of property division amongst his descendants. This was known as the Panch Paana system, which ensured that his fiefdom was divided between all five of his sons. Both these developments had an influence on the epigraphic and mural programme of his chatri.
Sardul Singh was a Shekhawat Kachwaha Rajput,[ii] who took over the Jhunjhunu region of Shekhawati from the Kyamkhani Nawabs.[iii] Born in a village in Tonk in c.1681 CE, he was the third son of Thakur Jagram Singh.[iv] Being the third son meant he did not inherit his father’s lands and title and had to make his own way in the world. He was married to the niece of the Begum of Jhunjhunu. It was this alliance that allowed him to be involved in the administrative work of Jhunjhunu, where he eventually reached the position of a deewan.[v] After the death of Nawab Ruhela Khan, the Kyamkhani Nawab of Jhunjhunu, in 1730 CE, Sardul Singh staked his claim over the region, ostensibly supported by his aunt-in-law, the Begum of the deceased Nawab.[vi] He, subsequently, established himself as the chief of the Jhunjhunu region, that is, as a ‘Kachwaha Tazimi Sardar’ under the Kingdom of Jaipur.
His kin, Shiv Singh, who was already ruling over Sikar, also ousted the Kyamkhanis from Fatehpur with Sardul Singh’s assistance. This brought the entire Shekhawati region under the control of the Shekhawat Rajputs. These shifts were supported by Sawai Jai Singh, the ruler of Jaipur, who was also a Kachwaha Rajput. The ascendance of the Shekhawats consolidated Sawai Jai Singh’s position in the region particularly as they all shared kinship ties. The coinciding weakening of Mughal rule meant limited possibilities of support from Delhi for the Kyamkhanis to avoid this transfer in power.
Sardul Singh’s chatri is situated in the small town of Parsurampura where he had settled after handing over the running of Jhunjhunu to his five sons. The chatri stands on a platform in a rectangular courtyard. It has a diameter of approximately 6.5 metres. The dome rests on an architrave supported by 12 pillars. The inner dome has a diameter of 5.25 metres.[vii]
The nondescript exterior of this single domed chatri does not prepare the visitor for the beauty of the detailed mural programme decorating the interior of the drum (fig. 1). The interior drum, from the apex downwards, is decorated with several circular courses, starting with the painted lotus, which mimics the inverted lotus crowning the exterior apex of the dome (fig. 2). Three more courses of floral motifs are followed by a course of crowned and winged apsaras, holding musical instruments. These figures cite the raginis particularly the Todi Ragini which is evident from the figure of the black deer. The depiction of the raginis establishes royalty by evoking ideas of connoisseurship and patronage as popular in Rajasthani court paintings.[viii] The set of musicians also seem to be heralding the entry of the memorialized person into a heavenly realm, emphasized through the programme of ascending circular courses till the apex. This is also evident from the courses culminating into the lotus. The lotus is a potent symbol evoking rich spiritual metaphors about birth, creation and the universe.[ix] Another course of the flower and leaf motifs separates the next course of rasa mandala with the figures of the gopis (village women from Krishna’s childhood home) and Krishna (fig. 2). The next and the most elaborate mural course in the chatri intermingles depictions from the Ramayana with instances from the life of Sardul Singh. Below this course, again separated by the flower and leaf design, are twenty-four recessed niches. These niches frame discrete monoscenic images like the avatars of Vishnu; depictions of the Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva and Saraswati; as well as Nath and Dadu Panthi ascetics.
The inclusion of the avatars of Vishnu, depictions of Krishna, the figure of the Todi Ragini and paintings that establish kingship like elephant fights and wrestling, are similar to the iconography in the chatris of the Kachwaha kings of Amber and subsequently Jaipur.[x] Given the hierarchies between Jhunjhunu and Jaipur, it is understandable that the chatris of the nobility of the Shekhawati region would imitate their political superiors, if not in material then in the iconography.[xi] Though, as with all mimicry, there is also the assertion of difference. In Sardul Singh’s chatri, this is done through the adoption of an idiom for the main mural course which cites a more locally familiar theme and style of the painted scrolls known as pars.
A par is a painted scroll used in the performance of two oral epics, popular to date in the present day state of Rajasthan. The two most common pars centre on oral epics that recount the adventures of heroes that are revered as deities. These are the scrolls of Pabuji and Devnarayan.[xii] John Smith has described par as a portable temple, and the singing of the epic done with the aid of the scroll painting as constituting a religious liturgy.[xiii]
The various elements common between the mural programme and the painted scrolls include the depiction of the court scenes (fig. 3), a depiction of the sun god, a hell scene, and an allegorical intermingling of the adventures of the hero with instances from the Ramayana through a synoptic narrative style. The latter is particularly a feature of the painted scrolls of Pabuji. Furthermore, the two inscriptions in the chatri highlight the role of the Bhopa painters in the painting of the chatri. One is Bhopa Prem Singhji and the second is Bhopa Madeva Rajput. Bhopas are the priests of Pabuji who recite the oral epic of his life with the help of the par. They usually belong to the Nayak caste and are also sometimes the painters of the par.[xiv] Birgit Breitkopf, though, has warned against reading the use of ‘bhopa’ in the inscription according to the contemporary understanding of the term. Breitkopf argues that the skilled level of fresco buono used in the painting of the chatri as well as the detailed composition, would suggest that the painters were full time professional painters. Yet, she does emphasize the clear intertextuality between the paintings of the chatri and the painted scrolls.[xv]
While the various facets of the mural programme and the intertextuality with the painted scrolls deserve a much lengthier analysis, for the sake of brevity, I will only focus on one element, which is the inclusion of the figural representation of Sardul Singh. One of the most compelling elements of the chatri is the ageing figure of Sardul Singh. This reference to a movement in linear historical time is achieved through a synoptic narrative style, similar to the par, with the repetitive, though developing depictions of Sardul Singh presiding over his court.
The Ageing Figure of Sardul Singh
Sardul Singh’s court is depicted three times in the chatri. In figure 4, painted next to each other are two of these courts. Both courts show him facing right. The court on the right is more expansive than the court on the left. The domed canopies above the court on the left show three women. This is a reference to the three wives of Sardul Singh, thus his zenana (women’s quarter). The painting on the right depicts Sardul Singh with his five sons and the zenana above has been enlarged to accommodate four female figures. This is a depiction of his full family with the fourth female figure in the zenana being his daughter. The court scene depicting his interaction with the five sons is significant for the purpose of the chatri as establishing the Panch-Paana system of property division. Since Sardul Singh’s fiefdom was divided amongst all his sons, all five are represented in the murals and mentioned in the inscription to establish shared succession.
The third court of Sardul Singh is larger than the first two (fig. 5). Presiding over it is a much older Sardul Singh. Here, he has grey hair and is visibly more corpulent (fig. 5). He is facing left which is in the opposite direction of his younger depictions. I am reading this change in direction as indicative of the decline in his years and his gradual movement towards death. He is also hieratically bigger than the others. The unpopulated upper canopies also suggest his corporeal decline through an empty zenana. This is contrasted with his political gains as this court is much larger than the earlier ones. During his tumultuous life, Sardul Singh gained control over a significant area that included Jhunjhunu, Parsurampura, and Udaipurwati. His third court is thus attended by a large number of courtiers. A court scribe is also included.
The figural and developmental depiction of Sardul Singh ensures that he is memorialized neither as a king nor as a deity. While figural depictions are absent from the chatris of the Kachwaha kings of Amber and Jaipur, as this was considered a demotion in their status,[xvi] examples exist of innumerable shrines in Rajasthan that honour locally popular deities known as bhomiyas[xvii] through iconic images of the deceased.[xviii] Since Sardul Singh was not a king, but only a lesser noble, that is a ‘sardar’ of a comparatively small fiefdom, it is not inappropriate that his depiction is figural. Furthermore, the theme and style of the mural course aligns him with the heroes of the oral epics who were also revered as folk deities. Yet, the depiction of him ageing undermines his elevation to the status of a powerful entity that is protective and boon granting. To become a deity or a powerful ancestor, one must have either died in battle or in an untimely manner due to an accident. Sardul Singh died of natural causes and his aged figure in the chatri undermines his association with such magical beings. His chatri, therefore, is a secular site and not an active place of worship. Sardul Singh, as memorialized in his chatri, thus, neither moves to the realm of abstraction that the iconography of the chatris of the Kachwaha kings attempt to achieve through the eschewing of figural representations, nor is he apotheosized as a protective deity.
The intertextuality with the painted scroll tradition constitutes the memorializing process in another way. Firstly, this choice of a locally resonant style is indicative of the intended audience of the chatri and the memorializing community that Sardul Singh and his sons were trying to cultivate.[xix] The iconography of the chatri traverses the multiple affiliations of Sardul Singh himself. The Vaishnavite scheme and depiction of figures like the Todi Ragini establish links with the chatris of the Kachwaha kings, but the par style places him firmly within the milieu of a more local audience. This is also indicated by the inscriptions in the chatri which are in old Rajasthani thus more accessible to the people of his fiefdom. Secondly, the memorializing process moves beyond the site-specific architectural location of the chatri through its mural programme invoking the ritual performance of the pars. The entanglements with a performed tradition moves the memorializing beyond the architectural in a way that the memorializing process itself becomes multi-sited.[xx] This is in keeping with how Monica Juneja has argued for complicating the association of memory as linked to a physical site by shifting the focus from representation to practise and acknowledging the multiple rememberings accrued in a particular site based on the heterogeneity of its intended audience.[xxi]
Professor Juneja, I do hope this short piece has piqued your interest in this chatri and hopefully when the world settles down after the current crisis, I will get a chance to show you this chatri in person and gain from your insights. Happy birthday![xxii]
[i] Monica Juneja, “Architectural Memory between Representation and Practice: Rethinking Pierre Nora’s Les lieux de mémoire ,”in Memory, History, and Colonialism: Engaging with Pierre Nora in Colonial and Postcolonial Contexts, ed. by Indra Sengupta (London: German Historical Institute London, 2009), 11–36; Monica Juneja, “Introduction,” in Architecture in Medieval India: Forms, Contexts, Histories, ed. by Monica Juneja (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2015), 1–105.
[ii] While the term ‘Rajput’ refers to ruling warrior groups, ‘Shekhawat’ is a region based affiliation while ‘Kachwaha’ is linked to the lineage of a particular Rajput clan.
[iii] The Kyamkhanis are a Muslim community that gained power in the region of North East Rajasthan from the middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century. The community traces its roots to the Rajputs of the region with tales according the beginnings of the Kyamkhanis to the conversion of a Hindu Rajput to Islam.
[iv] Raghunath Singh Shekhawat रघुनाथ सिँघ शेखावत, Jhunjhunu Mandal Ka Itihas झुनझुनु मनडल का इतिहास [The History of Jhunjhunu] (Jhunjhunu: Shree Shardul Shekhawati Itihaas Shodh Sansthan, 1981 (VS 2038)), 68.
[v] Shekhawat, Jhunjhunu Mandal Ka Itihas, 87. A deewan is a high administrative position.
[vi] For a detailed discussion on the various machinations involved in the transfer of power see Shekhawat, Jhunjhunu Mandal Ka Itihas, 67–152.
[vii] For more architectural details and measurements see Birgit Breitkopf, “Die Fresken der Kenotaphe von Shekavati, Räjasthän. The Frescoes Within Cenotaphs of Shekavati, Rajasthan,“ in Abhandlungen und Berichte des Staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde Dresden 47 (1992): 81.
[viii] Melia Belli Bose, Royal Umbrellas of Stone: Memory, Politics and Public Identity in Rajput Funerary Art (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 58–59; Edward S. Haynes, “Patronage for the Arts and the Rise of the Alwar State,” in The Idea of Rajasthan: Explorations in Regional Identity, vol. 2, Institutions, ed. by Karine Schomer, Joan L. Erdman, Deryck O. Lodrick, and Lloyd Rudolph (Delhi: Manohar, 1994), 265–289.
[ix] For an elaboration on the spiritual aspects attached to the lotus as used in art and architecture in the context of Rajasthan see Sehdev Kumar, Jain Temples of Rajasthan (Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2001), 29–50.
[x] Jai Singh shifted his capital from Amber to Jaipur in 1727.
[xi] The material used in most of the Gaitor chatris is marble or red sandstone.
[xii] For research on the epic of Pabuji see John D. Smith, The Epic of Pabuji (Delhi: Katha, 2005). For a detailed study of the epic of Devnarayan see Aditya Malik, Nectar Gaze and Poison Breath: An Analysis and Translation of the Rajasthani Oral Narrative of Devnarayan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[xiii] Smith, The Epic of Pabuji, 13.
[xiv] Smith, The Epic of Pabuji, 14.
[xv] Breitkopf, “Die Fresken der Kenotaphe von Shekavati,” 86.
[xvi] Belli Bose, Royal Umbrellas of Stone, 159.
[xvii] Sometimes, when a person dies at a particular spot, his spirit is supposed to become a bhomiya which then protects the surrounding area.
[xviii] Belli Bose, Royal Umbrellas of Stone, 67.
[xix] Even as Sardul Singh’s chatri was commissioned by his third wife and his five sons, there are other instances of Sardul Singh commissioning temples and chatris decorated in an idiom linked to the scroll painting tradition. For examples of other buildings in the region decorated with similar murals see Ilay Cooper, “Man Singh to Maonda: Murals of North East Rajasthan,” South Asian Studies 8 (1992).
[xx] While there is no research on the exact nature of the par painting and reciting tradition as it existed in the eighteenth century, the intertextuality between the pars of Devnarayan, Pabuji and Sardul Singh’s chatri is undeniable.
[xxi] Juneja, “Architectural Memory between Representation and Practice,” 28.
[xxii] Thanks are due to Tobias Reu, Ping-Heng Chen and Hajra Haider for their comments on a first draft of this paper.
Saumya Agarwal is a research fellow at the India Foundation for the Arts where she is conducting ethno-historic study on the painters of Shekhawati. She completed her PhD dissertation on the wall paintings of Shekhawati in 2021, under the supervision of Monica Juneja. In her thesis, she analyzed the transformations in the styles and themes of the paintings to study the influence of imperial clock time on the localized context of the merchant towns of Shekhawati. For this, she primarily focused on paintings of time measuring devices and depictions of means of transport. She also explored the braided themes of time, history, and modernity. More broadly, she has a strong interest in approaching the visual in innovative ways as an important source for historical enquiry and an important agent in socio-historical change.