“A Fantastic State of Ruin: The Painted Towns of Rajasthan” by David Zurick

Vivid paintings depicting British and Rajput soldiers decorate a crumbling
courtyard chamber (ca. 1860) used to store livestock fodder,
Ramgarh. From A Fantastic State of Ruin: The Painted Towns of Rajasthan Vivid paintings depicting British and Rajput soldiers decorate a crumbling courtyard chamber (ca. 1860) used to store livestock fodder, Ramgarh. From A Fantastic State of Ruin: The Painted Towns of Rajasthan

Many years ago, when I was about thirteen and home in Khartoum for the holidays from school in England, my mother took me on a train trip to Port Sudan, from where we drove to Suakin, an extensive deserted city on the Red Sea. Old Ottoman-style buildings lay scattered around us in ruinous states ranging from the almost intact to mere piles of bricks and stones. I was particularly struck, I remember, by the enclosed balconies which jutted out from the second floors of some of them, and remember wondering what the people who looked out from them might have been like. Why didn’t anyone live there any more? What happened to them?

I developed quite a fascination for ruins and ghost towns, as years later even the sparse, weather-beaten skeletons of abandoned farmhouses on the Canadian prairies seemed to convey some sort of mystery, too, although hardly as exotic as the ruins of Suakin.

For some reason I have always loved deserted places and ruins (Furness Abbey in Cumbria is a favourite of mine, especially on a rainy day), which is why it was such a pleasure when this magnificent book came across my desk, a veritable treasure-trove of decaying buildings, which demonstrate both impermanence and the desire of humans to leave something of themselves behind.

Because we humans are temporary, we try to build structures which are not as temporary, from the pyramids of Egypt to these virtually unknown structures in Rajasthan. An Old English poem “The Wanderer” goes (in translation)

 

The halls decay
their lords lie deprived of joy
… bereft of the noise
of its citizens
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

 

David Zurick’s book had a personal connection for me, reminding me of a world I had left behind physically, perhaps, but was still there in my subconscious to be reawakened.

 

A Fantastic State of Ruin: The Painted Towns of Rajasthan, David Zurick (Goff Books, October 2018)
A Fantastic State of Ruin: The Painted Towns of Rajasthan, David Zurick (Goff Books, October 2018)

The ruins depicted in this large-format book are in northwestern India, Rajasthan to be precise, and are situated in the region known as Shekhawati. Like those in Suakin, the settlements consist of a number of large houses or havelis (mansions), but there are also painted buildings of various kinds and walls decorated with fantastic murals, which contributes to the uniqueness of these sites.

Unlike Suakin, however, there are still people living here, although they are not the rich merchants of past days but people such as camel-drivers, priests, petty traders, bangle-sellers and even a snake-charmer. Some of the inhabitants can trace their descent to the wealthy merchants who used to inhabit the cities, and still others, a mere handful, are members of royal houses; as Abha Lambah notes in his Introduction, these structures,

 

once filled with the sounds of large joint families, now lie mainly locked and boarded up, with the descendants living far away in distant lands.

 

There are gypsies, too, and there are squatters, living in the abandoned palaces and mansions, all eking out whatever living they can by sheer hard work and determination, which may be seen etched in some of the faces of people in the “Inhabitants” section.

A bangle-maker in Fatehpur bazaar
A bangle-maker in Fatehpur bazaar

Buildings, it seems, are not mere bricks and mortar.

Zurick has drawn all this together in a wonderful volume of photographs, featuring everything from the surrounding desert landscape and the wall-paintings to stunning portraits of individual people from the various classes of Rajasthani society. He has spent more than ten years in the area, and as an academically-trained geographer he obviously has an eye for landscapes, but as a self-taught (and award-winning) photographer he has managed not just to capture the physical features of his subjects, animate or otherwise, but their inner lives as well.

Buildings, it seems, are not mere bricks and mortar; they do have their own inner lives of a kind, explained by some as the presence of “residual energy,” and this, perhaps, may be sensed in many of Zurick’s photographs. Look very closely at the interplay of light and shadow in the photographs of the ruined palaces, and you might imagine it; the ghosts may well be there somewhere, lurking in the shadows or behind the piles of bricks.

Zurick divides the book into four sections, setting the scene with the parched desert landscape, moving on into the towns with their inhabitants, and concluding with the painted walls. Even among the gnarly khejri trees, cattle paths and the ubiquitous brownish desert sand may be found the odd structure, and readers may well wonder why anyone chose to live in such unpromising surroundings, let alone construct towns and cities featuring palaces and mansions.

Zurick’s photographs skillfully convey the barrenness of the Shekhawati landscape; even now there are still people there, herding their skinny cattle and sad-looking camels, determined to make their lives work as well as they can. The desert photographs give way to the painted towns, about which Zurick learned when he took a camel ride across “the eastern fringe” of the Great Indian Desert; ruins suddenly appeared sticking out of the dunes.

First there was what was left of an old fort (there were lots of forts in the desert), but then came more buildings, which revealed to him “a vernacular architecture of unique and haunting beauty.” He marvelled at the mansions with their paintings of “colourful figures and floral arabesque patterns… despoiled by rot or graffiti,” wondering how such things “came to exist in this impoverished land.”

He must have felt like the Wanderer, as he ascribed in his poem the ruined buildings he sees to “giants.” The difference was that the ruins (apart from being built by humans) were not wholly abandoned, like Furness Abbey or the prairies farmhouses, but “swarms of pedestrians milled about in the narrow lanes and shopkeepers hawked all manner of goods.” The “noise of citizens” which the Wanderer missed is very much still there; life goes on and the buildings themselves, Zurick observes, “are alive, and not musty museum-pieces.”

The main bazaar in Malsisar in the early morning
The main bazaar in Malsisar in the early morning

He likes to visit these places on foggy days in the winter (much as I did with Furness Abbey); the towns appear to him “as if an artist is painting them on the spot” complete with the “ghostly forms” of people who “quickly dissolve again into the fog.”

These ghostly outlines of both buildings and people are captured in one particularly remarkable photograph of Malsisar, where the figures in the foreground are quite clear, but as you look further into the background the fog obscures everything in an opaque pall.

In the third section Zurick features the inhabitants of the town, who are, as he describes them, “a mixed lot.” As he waits outside a barber’s shop in Ramgarh he does some serious people-watching, and is rewarded by a performance from two snake-charmers, a glass of tea from a total stranger and a good shave, after which he goes to the bazaar and acquaints readers with photographs featuring a variety of traders and craftsmen, musicians, shopkeepers and children. As well, “gypsies, migrant workers and cameleers all constantly pass through the town,” he tells us, and “it all makes for an enduring and resilient society, a tiny slice of India.” Sadly, though, “as the mural-clad buildings of the painted towns disappear from view, so, too, the opportunities for local residents to engage with their cultural heritage decline.” Zurick’s beautiful photographs go a long way to rectifying this situation; one may hope that some of the more enlightened residents as well as Western readers see them and begin to understand what they have got right under their noses.

And finally, in the last section, Zurick presents us with the painted walls. Visitors can see them everywhere, although there are also some of them in closed buildings, “tucked away in tiny portals and courtyards.”

In spite of the vivid color of some of the murals, Zurick again laments the fact that “neglect, abandonment, or indifference” has cause the paintings to flake, fade or even be covered by whitewash or graffiti. Many of them are simply on the walls of buildings which belong, it seems, to everyone and no-one, so they are left to decay.

It’s distressing to know that at some point they will be gone.

rajasthan

The range of art is wonderful: you can see anything from old Persian-style miniature paintings to folk-art and my favorites, a mural depicting a ruler in a Western-style carriage with his dog and a fan-bearing attendant, whilst on the opposite page some rich people are driving along in a limousine followed by a man on a bicycle. There are people dancing, girls with birds, elephants, embracing lovers and maharajahs with big moustaches, something for everyone, it seems.

Zurick has done a fantastic job in this book of preserving these paintings for the enjoyment of posterity; it’s distressing to know that at some point they will be gone, as the wrecking-ball of modernism lumbers through the towns and the past is swept away. The halls, it seems, do indeed decay.