Conservation work in progress in the Sheesh Mahal, Ahhichatragarh Fort, Nagaur, Rajasthan
 

Set on the edge of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, the Ahhichatragarh Fort – ‘Fort of the Hooded Cobra’ – is an astounding site, covering thirty-seven acres, and protected by a massive wall punctuated by thirty bastions. Happily no cobras have been encountered by the present authors, who live in the Fort for some two months each year, working to preserve its exquisite wall paintings as one of the many projects now being undertaken throughout the world by the Courtauld Insitute of Art’s Conservation of Wall Painting Department.


These projects range from conserving Nabataean paintings in a rock-cut dining hall at Petra to researching temple paintings in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, but none is more challenging than the work at Nagaur. One of the problems is the sheer scale of the site: no fewer than four main palaces and five other buildings retain significant schemes of wall painting in varying states of deterioration. Their extent and condition were first surveyed in 2005, with days spent examining the paintings as quickly but carefully as possible, and nights spent sleeping outside in the stifling heat.


Ahhichatragarh Fort, Nagaur, Rajasthan, Palace of Mirrors (Sheesh Mahal), Exterior

 

The paintings present an amazing array of motifs – elephants in combat, parrots, flying ‘angels’ – but, above all, hundreds of women. Throughout the main palaces women are shown engaged in various activities: dancing, holding flowers, bathing, picnicking, playing with yoyos or smoking hookahs. It was just the sort of subject-matter to appeal to Maharaja Bahkt Singh, who held court at Nagaur from 1725 to 1751, before being poisoned the following year. It was clearly during his reign that all the most important paintings, as well as the other most striking features of the site as a whole, were executed: the palaces themselves, with their verandas and pierced screens; the subtle arrangement of courtyards and gardens; and the uniquely elaborate water system with its cascades, ponds and fountains. The ensemble must have closely resembled the most exquisite miniatures of the period.

By the end of the twentieth century the site was desolate – overgrown with Babool trees and littered with stone debris – and the complex water system had long since ceased functioning. Consequently, in 1998 a major conservation programme was initiated by the Maharajah of Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh Museum Trust (MMT) to conserve the site to recover a sense of its elegant past. A vast amount has since been achieved with the generous support of the Getty Foundation and the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The buildings have been sensitively restored, the water system is working once again, and the gardens are being recreated. It was the Hamlyn Trust that sponsored the initial survey of the wall paintings in 2005, and with the MMT funded two subsequent phases of research and conservation work on the wall paintings in 2006-07. One of the most urgent tasks was to prioritise the conservation needs of the many wall paintings throughout the site, and it rapidly became clear that one palace in particular was most in need of serious long-term treatment.

The Sheesh Mahal, at the centre of the site, is one of the most enchanting buildings at Nagaur. Its name, ‘The Palace of Mirrors’, derives from the exquisite inlaid mirror work set into the plastered walls, forming floral bouquets, bottles and bowls of fruit, which in candle-light must have created a marvellously atmospheric environment. Together with the associated paintings the decoration once again testifies to Bahkt Singh’s predilection for wine, women and music. On the walls female dancers or couples are depicted offering one another glasses of wine, or in close embrace as if sharing intimate secrets. In the vault, above a river that winds along the cornice, painted in indigo on tin foil, Heaven itself appears. Here, pairs of women float in a sky offering each other drinks or betel leaves, or playing musical instruments, all set amidst swirling clouds and golden streaks of lightning.

However, this heavenly scheme now suffers severely from salts that are pushing off the paint-layer, and from coatings applied in the past which have now darkened to a nicotine brown. Much alteration has occurred in the original materials themselves, including darkening of the lead pigment used for the flesh areas of figures, and fading of the organic colorants that would have given the entire scheme a much richer appearance. Thanks to further generous funding from the Getty Foundation, The Courtauld’s research and conservation work on the decoration of the Sheesh Mahal will continue until 2010, with collaboration from Indian conservators an essential part of the project. It is hoped that the training thus provided will in future make a significant contribution to the preservation of other wall paintings, not only at Nagaur but elsewhere in India.

Stephanie Bogin, Charlotte Martin de Fonjaudran and Sibylla Tringham
Conservation of Wall Painting Department