India Interior

When Shekhawati is all dressed up

Preeti Mehra | Updated on February 24, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Over the hump Cultural evenings are popular at the four-day festival   -  Preeti Mehra

A colourful February festival in Rajasthan that evokes people’s participation

In the second week of February, for the last 23 years, Nawalgarh town in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan comes alive. Its landscape takes on a different hue. The entire community gears up for fun, frolic, food and competitive games. Small businesses from the entire State, especially Jhunjhunu district, converge here to sell their goods that they bring from far flung corners of the country.

“The Shekhawati Festival is for four days but our haat (market) continues for another 10, so we bring enough goods as this becomes a large shopping opportunity for the residents of Nawalgarh,” says Saroj who is here with her son Ashish to sell clothes, which reflect “the latest fashions of Delhi”.

Apart from micro entrepreneurs with their clothes, household goods, snacks and merry-go-rounds, local schools and colleges participate in the festivities. There is a children’s march past, folk music performances, cart races, folk dances and rural sports, which add to the excitement. Several foreign tourists mark the event on their calendar.

The beginnings

It all began in the mid-1990s when son-of-the soil Kamal Morarka, who was brought up in Mumbai and had several businesses of his own, decided to return to his roots and started the Morarka Foundation in Nawalgarh to help rejuvenate this region abandoned by his ancestors. He saw its potential both as a tourism hub and a region where he could help bring prosperity to the people.

Apart from preserving the remains and restoring the havelis that his family built, in 1996, he began the Shekhawati Festival, which would provide an opportunity to showcase the region and attract domestic and foreign tourists to explore a chapter forgotten in history.

Today many more have joined hands and the festival is organised jointly by MR Morarka-GDC Rural Research Foundation, the State’s art, culture and tourism departments along with the district administration of Jhunjhunu. This year it was held from February 15 to 18. But its history takes us back centuries ago.

The Silk Route

Situated on the ancient Silk Route, Shekhawati is dotted with the homes of the Marwari community who traded in opium and spices with their counterparts in China and Afghanistan. Between 1750 AD and 1900 AD, they built large, airy, ornate houses with designs borrowed from Mughal architecture. Called ‘Havelis’ in local parlance, these buildings were suited to desert conditions, and in keeping with local art traditions were decorated with paintings by the artists.

Over time, these homes, however, were abandoned. The well-to-do families moved to the urban hotspots of the country to pursue their business interests leaving the havelis neglected. The region became a forgotten part of Rajasthan with little or no employment opportunities for the local people.

Morarka, in a sense, set a trend. Hearing about his work, other business families too started taking interest in the region. Soon, hotels came up along with heritage homes and home-stays.

Along the way, the Morarka Foundation began work on its pet initiative — getting farmers to understand the importance of organic agriculture and help them shift totally to natural agri production. It also used its influence to involve women in economic participation. “Every year the number of women participants has been increasing,” says Executive Director, Mukesh Gupta, an agriculture specialist behind the organic thrust.

The transformation of the region is something that he is proud of, and justifiably so.

The writer was in Nawalgarh, Rajasthan, at the invitation of Morarka Foundation

Published on February 23, 2018

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