- – I want to live over there! Achille, 9 years old, radiant with excitement.
- – Over there where? I asked him.
- – In South Africa, Mum. With lions, and elephants and hippos… I...
It is like a flaw in the space-time continuum, emerging, sublime, before our very eyes. A genuine time warp that begins in India, in the state of Rajasthan and more precisely in its north-east in the semi-arid region of Shekhawati. A journey of initiation experienced some twenty years ago by Nadine Le Prince. It was in Mandawa that the painter discovered Havelis for the first time. Sumptuous houses built in a unique architectural style in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and once the property of wealthy merchants. It was love at first sight. There was no turning back. Better than that. The artist acquired her own in the city of Fatehpur. The Devra Haveli – named after the merchant to whom it belonged – became the Le Prince Haveli and began a real renaissance… which was accelerated by the arrival in 2015 of Cécile Charpentier, restorer emeritus! With her help, Nadine Le Prince has been unearthing the building’s forgotten treasures. Over the years, she has carried out a titanic restoration using time-honoured traditional techniques. Frescoes, woodwork, tiles, ornaments… The hidden assets of this impressive building are finally being revealed, impressive, and with mesmerising and sometimes surprising colours. A visual abundance that only furnishings in the original spirit of the place – sourced from local antique dealers – and enhanced with a touch of minimalist modernism, could equal. For in addition to being a real history lesson in itself, the Le Prince Haveli is coming back to life. By opening its rooms to travellers eager for art and culture, the establishment – which has everything you could wish for in a hotel – also aspires to showcase Indian and French talent in its gallery. A magical experience that illustrates our desire to take you travelling. The images, to follow, are worth more than a thousand words.
Haveli Le Prince, District Sikar – 332301 Fatehpur. Reservations via WhatsApp, on (+91).98.29.89.04.49, and on www.leprincehaveli.com
Nadine, Cécile, who are you? What is your connection with Shekhawati?
I am a painter, and I started travelling in India about 40 years ago. First in the south and then, very soon, to the north and Rajasthan. I arrived at Shekhawati almost by chance. It was a region unknown to tourists. So I ended up in the only place where we could stay: the Mandawa Palace. Seeing that I was inquisitive, my host, a Raja, took me to a village festival and then to explore the havelis. The memory I have of it is extraordinary! All these sleeping splendours, palanquins covered with cobwebs and paintings hidden under the dust… There were entire villages with these abandoned houses.
I’m a restorer. I started out working on easel paintings for Les Musées de France and very quickly turned to frescoes and murals. Two things brought me to India: yoga and a project to restore Portuguese churches in Goa. When I arrived there, I felt disillusioned when I saw the beaches devastated by pollution. I quickly got the feeling that restoration was not really a priority. Then I met Nadine through a friend. That soon brought me to Shehkawati. Once there, it was impossible to leave. I was fascinated by the cultural richness of this abandoned region!
How did the Le Prince Haveli project come about?
Rajasthan is a particularly fascinating place. For a painter, it is an enchantment of colours. The light is incredible, and you can still see men and women wearing traditional clothes. I arranged many trips for my artist friends, and I very soon wanted to go further by setting up a painting studio and a cultural centre. While working in this haveli, I set up exchanges between Paris and India with cross-cultural exhibitions by Indian and French artists.
This project contributes, among other things, to ecological awareness, one of the main causes of degradation being pollution linked to untreated waste.
What is the story of this haveli?
It dates from the early 19th century and was owned by the Devra family, considered to be one of the wealthiest merchant families in Fatehpur. Mr Devra was particularly fond of women and had a great many concubines. One of the frescoes in the first courtyard shows him putting on his turban. So I imagine him as quite an attractive man. In Fatehpur, there are different types of haveli depending on the times but also on beliefs. They were built and grouped by religious areas (Muslims, Hindus) as well as by castes. What is fascinating is the way that time influences architectural details. So the beginning of the 20th century saw the appearance of cast-iron balconies and even Art Deco additions!
Tell us more about its restoration.
The haveli had been closed for decades. The outside was very badly damaged by the sand winds and the sun. As for the interior… the amount of work required was colossal! Smoke from the kitchens in the second courtyard had blackened the walls; the remaining paintings were buried under the dust, and many pigments had disappeared. Only the bedrooms were in reasonably good condition. The old havelis have the advantage of being easy to restore. They are very strong because they are built with materials which suit the constraints of the region. For example, plastered brick is suitable for damp and hot weather. We were lucky when it came to the paintings. We were able to find the original drawings because the painters first cut an outline in the fresh plaster before applying the colours. This was not true of the external walls, which are painted with frescoes, a technique that has almost disappeared in India. This was where things got complicated because we had to find craftsmen and women and artists who had the necessary skills and expertise. Thanks to Cécile, what has been achieved goes far beyond what I had begun to accomplish with the artisans in the region. When the first monsoon came, everything – literally – melted!
The task was, indeed, quite colossal, but above all, it was fascinating. Technically, there is still much to explore. In addition to fresco painting, the craftsmen of the time used, for example, a coating technique called Arayish using marble and shell powder. The pigments were then directly incorporated into this preparation. This technique was initially introduced by the Persians and is widely used in North Africa. The final result is a glossy effect close to ceramic, very smooth to the touch.
What do the wall paintings tell us?
They tell the life story of the owner and his family, that of the gods they worshipped, as well as the historical events in the region (wars, celebrations, etc.). There is also the figure of Krishna, extremely popular here, and some paintings of Ramayana. It is impossible to encapsulate it in a few lines because there are so many details and anecdotes! Especially since the paintings are in step with the times. The arrival of the English gave rise to some quite tasty interpretations of a culture unknown to painters.
What is the Shekhawati Project?
When I arrived here in 2015, I must admit that I had to ask myself some profound questions. This type of restoration is hugely time-consuming and expensive. So I came up with the idea of a “school project”. What’s the concept? To use this haveli as a restoration research laboratory through a system of international student exchanges. The National Heritage Institute in Paris, the Politécnica de Valence: the first schools that collaborated with us were European. Then, one thing led to another; the partnerships expanded… to Australia! We take a small number of students, four or five to one or two supervisors. The conditions for learning are ideal, and sessions are distributed from the end of September to the end of March because we are dependent on monsoons. Our association is trying to raise funds to finance this project and to offer training modules to Indian universities. The aim is to raise awareness about this important heritage to be preserved that could be of interest to UNESCO. We also realised that this initiative had already begun to bring together many other people, including young Indian women, students in heritage architecture in particular, who also see career opportunities in it.
How can we address the notion of heritage and restoration in India?
The notion of heritage is very different in India. INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage) strives to perpetuate not only manual but also artistic knowledge, while in Europe, many techniques are disappearing due to a lack of teaching or knowledge transfer. I am thinking, for example, of oil painting or egg tempera painting, which are no longer taught at the Beaux-Arts. Let us say that Indian philosophy is concerned with safeguarding expertise rather than preserving the original material. Consequently, it seems natural to them to repaint some places that in Europe that would be the subject of conservation-restoration. So in this sense, Indian and Western thinking are quite complementary.
Indeed, the Indians have a different connection to the past. They only take care of the present! But we are still convinced that these havelis are a fabulous heritage for the Indians and the Shekhawati region. Since I arrived here, I have been bringing in the local and international media to draw the country’s attention to the need to preserve these places and the endangered arts associated with them.
The Le Prince Haveli is also a particularly welcoming hotel. What happens here throughout the year?
Photography: Eve Campestrini – Text: Caroline Balvay @thesocialitefamily