Last night, it had rained heavily. From the evening itself, the dark clouds had loomed over the city. At one time, we were watching the peacocks flying over our heads with such a great speed. Perhaps we had accidently found the peacocks’ hideout or den in the Johara, situated in front of the RTDC Fatehpur. There were numerous peacocks living in families. Apparently, they looked agitated. Little did we know that their agitation was the sign of the arrival of the tremendous rains? When the small droplets started to come falling from the sky, we expedited our return. Suddenly, out of the blue, the rains did come, drenching us within seconds. We ran towards the guest house and found shelter there. Later, ferocious lightening, heavy downpour and shrilling sound produced by the strong winds tearing through the adjoining tall eucalyptus trees had forced us to remain inside our room throughout the nature’s display of its power. The electricity department had stopped the electric supply to prevent any unwanted disaster. The entire campus was shrouded by the complete fearsome darkness.
The rains, the wind, the lightening and an overwhelming darkness, however, provided us an impromptu opportunity to have a very beautiful candle-light-dinner, for which we should be grateful to the caring staff of RTDC, Fatehpur. Nicely planned candle-light-dinners in plush restaurants generally have a soothing effect on the minds. But, there at the distant mufassil town of Fatehpur, amidst the darkness fortified by the strong forces of nature, it had an effect, which was somewhat uncharted for us so far. Thereafter, even the sound of the thunder-storm coming from the windows could not be heard, when we had fallen asleep. We did not know when the fury stopped and when the electricity was restored.
For a beautiful sunny morning was before us, when we opened our eyes. The sky was clear. There was no trace of clouds in the horizon. But, the rain had left its marks everywhere. The air was cold, the green leaves were shining in the sunlight and the earth looked satiated. But, it had also left the entire old city of Fatehpur water-logged. The main road itself was submerged with rain-water. Except the drivers of big transport-buses, no one was driving through those water-filled roads. It was a bad omen. Our desire to see various major havelis of Fatehpur, i.e., Singhania’s haveli, Deora’s haveli, Jalan’s Haveli etc. was not going to be fulfilled. Water-logging in traditional cities of Shekhawati was unexpected. I was certain that the original rulers and its original inhabitants did not choose a low-lying area for residential purposes. Therefore, it might be attributed to faulty city-planning in 20th Century. I guess so.
We waited in vain for about an hour in anticipation of water-level to recede. But, it did not go down. Remorsefully, we started thinking to call off our plans for the day. Just then, ever-smiling voice of Mr. Pandey, the manager, fell onto our ears. He was telling us to take an alternate, though circuitous, route into the old city, even though he was himself not absolutely sure about the road conditions there. He also persuaded us for not returning to Delhi without seeing the haveli of Nadine Le Prince, which had an international connection and resultantly acquired world-wide fame. Mr. Pandey was from Uttar Pradesh. He had got into the services of Government of Rajasthan much ago. After doing his stints at various places in the state, he was then serving at Fatehpur. In one of his postings, he had also served in the “Palace on Wheels”, the luxurious train of Indian Railways. That tenure had taught him pleasing manners and had given him a melodiously tuned smooth voice. It was very hard to resist his prepositions. Moreover, I also did not want to leave Fatehpur without seeing its crowning glory.
As advised, we took to the NH 11 and entered into the city from its other end. All the drains had been clogged in this route too. But, the water level was manageable. The streets were deserted. Occasionally, some vehicles were seen plying. Finding our ways through the GPS, we reached the place. Its official name was Nadine LE PRINCE Haveli Cultural Centre. Anticipating no tourists’ arrivals on that day, due to rains and water-logged streets, its main door was closed. At the outside, one labourer was working hard to pump the water into drainage. On our requests, he went inside and got the door opened for us. Parking the car as closed to the gate as possible so as to avoid getting our feet/shoes into the dirty water, we tiptoed into the doorway.
In the courtyard, we were greeted by a European woman of young age, wearing a cotton dress printed in geometric patterns, who introduced herself as Ms. Lia, a French student. Initially, both of us were perplexed to see each other. She had never expected a domestic tourist to come there crossing the rain-clogged streets and I had never expected to be a part of foreigner-conducted tour to see a haveli situated within my own country. However, in a fraction of second, we composed ourselves and went over business as usual. She was dutifully carrying a ticket receipt book under her arms. Being a private residential-cum-business property, the owners had kept a price of Rs. 200/- per person for a conducted tour of the haveli and its cultural center. The printed ticket-receipt had the graphical sketch of the structure of the haveli and its Facebook account.
Lia led us to the outer courtyard. The foremost thing that attracted us was the striking colours that still retained its magical richness. She explained that the walls were cleaned every year even at a high cost. This prevents the dirt and the algal growth from setting in. Similarly, all the windows were also varnished regularly. That prevented decay and kept the wood-panels shining. There were nets fixed across the walls to prevent pigeons flying into the haveli to make their nests in any corner. The metal-works had been polished. The glass and mirror works were glazed. A marble fountain, with one identical marble elephant at the either side, was installed at the centre of that courtyard to give a neat and modern look. Moreover, the flower pots arranged around the fountain, clean wooden sofa in the verandah and presence of various other household goods were clearly giving a feel of a modern functional household in the age-old haveli.
Lia, in the meantime, was busy explaining the pictures detailed in the frescos. Floral motifs, geometrical patterns, Krishna’s rasa, peacocks, pigeons, girls playing musical instruments, man fastening his turban in front of the mirror were depicted on some of them. There were also some plates in which some scenes from family life was shown, viz., couple playing chaupar, amorous man touching his woman, man drinking from the saucer given by a woman etc. There was also a scene in which a king was distributing all his wealth among his citizen. But, the most prominent among them were two giant elephants showering milk from their trunks over Goddess Lakshmi, the mythological Hindu Goddess of wealth.
There was a fully furnished room as well. Lia informed that it was the personal room of the present owner, who happens to be the son of Mrs. Nadine Le Prince of France. The room was equipped with a television and electric fan. It had orange glass at the windows through which the sun-light was coming into the room giving it an orange glow. The room had been arranged neatly and everything was functioning. I stayed for a few minutes in the room to understand how it feels to live in the 200 years old haveli. Only a few days ago, I had seen the decaying Shekhawati through crumbling mansions of Ramgarh and around. And now, I was standing in the fully furnished room in the old haveli that was functioning even in the modern times.
In the cultural center of the haveli, there was a portrait of Ms. Nadine Le Prince in some Indo-European dress. She looked quite tender and beautiful in them. It was she who had come to India and had stayed back in Shekhawati. It was she who willed to restore the beauty of the fresco. It was she who not only made the haveli livable, but actually lived in it. She was herself an artist, a painter. Today, her son had also followed in her footsteps. He was a good photographer also. With their efforts, the cultural center in the remote part of the country is thriving both from the business and cultural perspectives.
Meanwhile, Lia had led us to the inner courtyard. It had all the looks of the residential quarters. Though we did not go upstairs, we saw plenty of beautiful frescos there. It had the depiction of musical-band party, horse driven carriages, palki, scenes from Hindu mythology, breast-feeding woman and minor battle as well. But, the plate that caught my attention was the picture of army riding on the camel-back and shooting a canon. That picture drawn two hundred years ago had the same resemblance with our Border Security Forces of the present times. At one side of the courtyard, within easily visibility, an idol of Lord Ganesha playing a drum, had been kept. It looked divine there. Lia informed that it had been kept there to give a traditional look to the haveli.
On the other hand, my wife was more interested in knowing how the kitchen used to function in the old haveli. Whether the food is still prepared on the burning Woodstock or over charcoal? So, she went to see the kitchen. There she found that the kitchen was neatly tiled. It had all the modern gadgets that we use in the middle class Indian kitchen. The food was not being prepared over the wood or the charcoal. There was a proper cooking gas stove for food preparation. So, here was the change that modernity had brought in the traditional Shekhawati Kitchen. The menfolk did not eat their food sitting on the ground inside the kitchen as was depicted in Dundlod. In present times, they used to eat sitting on the chairs placed in the verandah outside the kitchen. Anyway, the Indian house-cook employed there became very happy and excited when her picture was taken there. She was a middle-aged woman and was wearing a proper apron. Undoubtedly, she was cooking something for the residents.
At one portion of the haveli, the owners had planned to open an open-air restaurant. Already ten glass-topped and rebidded wooden tables with wrought-iron chairs had been placed. Very soon, the visitors could be able to order food and beverages there. I considered as a good business activity thought by them. But, there also my eyes travelled to the opposite external wall of the mansion. It had the pictures of dancing women and also plates describing stories from the Hindu Mythology. We also saw that a window Air-conditioner was installed in one of the windows. It was another change that the modernity had brought in the haveli in its journey of 200 years. The manually operated hand-fans had been replaced with electric fans and the air-conditioners.
Then Lia brought us to the cultural center. It had mainly three sections. The first section was dedicated to paintings and the tribal art. Each frame was magnificent. Nevertheless, two pictures really attracted me. The first was the paining on goat skin, depicting of “Ram hunting”. The richness of its colour was excellent. It was done by an unknown tribal artist. Lia informed that the centre encourages tribal artists by providing them with wherewithal for making an art and then also provides them a market in the form of Europeans travellers who do come to visit the haveli at Fatehpur. An interesting piece of information it was for a curious visitor. The second painting was that of a nude white woman getting up in the morning out of her bed. It was painted in the light colours by Ms. Nadine Le Prince herself. The delicacy of that picture was really to be felt. It was really admirable.
The second section was mainly on camera Photographs, a hobby that her son had perfected. He appeared to have concentrated on textural details of his subjects. But, the table full of his photographs was telling the story of his success. Lia informed that he spends hours on editing of one photograph and never gets satisfied unless it is perfected to the point of perfection in colours and details.
Gradually, we reached to the third section dedicated to sculpture. Carved on the black stone, they were mainly on the subject of sensuality and romanticism. There were couples embracing each other passionately. There was also one statue of a head-less woman, whose jeans was felling off her legs. Even Lia was feeling uncomfortable in explaining those statues. May be the clientele of such items would be different.
The collection of sculpture was the last item on the list of Lia. She smiled at us when she said “That’s all”. We also smiled at her and wished her well during her stay in our country.
When we came out of the haveli, we saw that the water still had not receded completely and the streets were still water-logged. But, it was time for us to go to another destination. So, we left.