If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t guess that he was the principal of Shahpura’s only children’s school (there is another one for girls in the eight grade and above). But that’s Natwarkumar Sharma for you – unassuming, humble and ever ready to offer a proud story of a child who went on to become an engineer or a tourist who was wowed by the students’ manners.”Last year, three children gave the eighth standard board exams and all three passed,” he told me with obvious pride. For me, that slight throw back of his shoulders symbolised the quintessential Indian reverence for academic excellence.
There is a pervading fascination with journalism in the schools of Shahpura. Natwarkumar’s son wanted to be a journalist and so did the son of the principal of the girl’s school in the neighbouring section of the palace-turned-school. Some parts of the school retained their palatial aura more than the others. Shabbir Ahmed, our guide from Shahpura Bagh, a suave young fellow with a refreshing passion for his vocation convinced the principal to let us venture into the loftier parts of the ruins, now closed to public entry because of their precarious condition. “That’s where the real treasures are!” he told us conspiratorially and we were thrilled to be breaking the rules and entering where no tourist had gone before us.
Walls maimed by careless scrawls and declarations of love met our surprised eyes. Here and there, an enduring remnant of Mughal-era art hinted at the palace that once stood on these very grounds. Like a ghost that had been overshadowed by its living sibling, the Gandhian figures and golden etchings struggled to gain our attention. “Most tourists aren’t interested in the finer nuances of places,” Shabbir said. I wasn’t sure if he was being honest or merely flattering us. But he did seem genuinely pleased when I noted the mysterious European influence in the paintings on the ancient walls. Beyond the parapet, we could see young girls teetering on the verge of childhood, about to slip away between their fingers. But their smiles still retained the innocence and freshness of one’s salad years. Or maybe, villagers simply don’t age the way city dwellers do.
Shahpura’s schools are an intriguing study in contrasts. Here are students dreaming of international careers and lives far removed from their farmer parents and then there’s Natwarkumar Sharma who staunchly believes that a havan (ritual fire) will result in a good monsoon. I found it difficult to repress a smile as I observed the large havan kunda (fire altar) standing incongruously in the midst of playing children and the echoes of mathematical tables being repeated aloud. But Shabbir shot me a warning glance and I knew better than to mock the principal’s reverence for the ancient Hindu practice. “We perform the Vrishti yagna when the rains are insufficient,” Natwarkumar told us. “One has to pour ghee into the altar for five consecutive days.” The famous Malhar raga was said to invoke torrential rains as well. Who knows, perhaps these arcane practices truly can summon the rain Gods.
In the dusty corners of Shrimad Dayanand Mahila Shikshan Kendra, we chanced upon colourful drawings of Rajasthani warriors on horses, the position of their limbs not unlike the Egyptian wall paintings. “These are phad paintings, unique to Shahpura,” Shabbir informed us. The phad is a kind of scroll painting and the Joshis of Shahpura claim to have upheld the tradition in Rajasthan over the years. And what we classified as ‘Rajasthani warriors’ are apparently sagas of one particular epic hero called Pabuji. We spotted life-size phad paintings outside temples in the market area of Shahpura as well. Incidentally, similar drawings grace the walls of many modern buildings including The Times of India at CST, Mumbai.
From the phad paintings, we moved on to a chamber whose ceiling was adorned with the remnants of intricate golden carvings. “Why are so many parts missing?” I asked Shabbir and he shrugged sadly. “People have thrown stones at the ceiling to bring down parts that they can sell for money.” He then bent to pick up a circular golden disk and handed it to me with a flourish. “The covering is pure 24 karat gold,” he assured me. I hadn’t known I’d be leaving Shahpura with such riches stashed away in my humble bag. That piece of Shahpuran history now has pride of place in my drawer at home. Feeling decidedly wealthier, we moved on to the beautiful terrace with its mosaic flooring of multicoloured stone. “This style is typical to Rajasthan,” Shabbir said and I told him it had been imitated in numerous homes across India. The terrace offered a sweeping view of all of Shahpura and its many dreamers.
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