Jyotindra Jain speaks of the murals and collages of Shekhavati as a mass cultural product of the hybridity of colonialism in the visual culture

Many years ago, Jyotindra Jain, founder professor and dean of the School of Arts & Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, visited Shekhavati where he came across interesting artworks. “These pictures turned out to be collages with a background of landscapes of European prints from Germany or hand painted Nathadwara paintings with pasted pictures of Indian deities and figures.”

When he saw this, he decided to research the history of these works of art, which he shared in his recent lecture, “Murals and Collages of Shekhavati” at the National Gallery of Modern Art. These works, he said, were a mass cultural product of the hybridity that emerged as an effect of colonialism in the visual culture.

Around the 1830s, a large number of Vaishnava Agarwal families migrated from Haryana to the Shekhavati region in Rajasthan to use the trade routes from Gujarat to the Ganges. These traders also built mansions in the region which they would visit annually, even as they set up their offices and homes in Calcutta. It is the revelation of colonial life in Calcutta that influenced their visual culture.

“The murals in the mansions were a reflection of proximity of European babus in Calcutta. So images in the Shekhavati havelis are a creation of self image with the iconisation of the self,” he explained indicating a painting of a man in a Victorian chair looking through a telescope.

Shekhavati collages on the other hand, he said, are of two types. One that used German prints, and the other using Nathadwara paintings.

The German prints had cut outs from Bengali prints while the Nathadwara landscapes used cutouts from the Brijbasi press.

These collages can be further categorised into two more types — one that depicted Indian mythology and the other that had a political agenda.

The collages that depicted Indian mythology reflected a heterotopia with their used European backgrounds. But the Nathadwara spaces, he said, were utopian spaces. “Nathadwara paintings had backgrounds with lawns, fountains, potted plants, garden arches, avenues, lamp posts, reflection of Colonial training. The Nathadwara paintings took up perspective and European elements.”

These mythological collages, the professor found, then became means of “legitimizing consumption of eroticized female body and modernity in terms of the Radha and Krishna liason”.

“The medium of collage was used to depict promiscuous circulation of the female in context of Vaishnava imagery.”

About the political dimension, Jain pointed out that the Shekhavatis were known to be patrons of the right-wing nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that was founded (in the 1920s) around the time the collages were made. And collages, for them became a great way to promote political agenda because adding something or removing something could change the entire meaning of the image.

To demonstrate this, the professor compared two images. In the original painting, an image of the freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose is placed next to the Lal Quila (Red Fort) with an Indian flag, depicting his dream of freedom for the country. The painting also shows Subhash’s head in sacrifice to one of the RSS’s most iconic images of the Bharat mata.

“In the collage, one can see that the image of Bharat Mata cut out and placed in collage. The image of Subhash is kept but the background of the Islamic monument has been removed.

And the collage also includes an image of Krishna next to the memorial bust of Subhash meaning to say that he is presiding at the sacrifice of Subhash. But Subhash was not a Hindu nationalist, he was a nationalist who wanted a free state not a Hindu nation.”