Cycling into rarely visited northern Rajasthan, in tiny desert towns llay Copper discovers impressive buildings, their walls covered with vibrant paintings. Fascinated, he settles nearby and, exploring, finds that the main painted towns lie in the defunct administrative district of Shekhawati. After ten years studying all aspects of the painting, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) commissions him to document the phenomenon. A local teacher, Ravindra Sharma (Rabu), assists him; together they map the painted towns and, over two-and-a-half years, describe 2,260 building. They travel by motorbike and their work is punctuated by adventures. Research reveals the unpublished writings and drawings of Colonel Lockett and Lieutenant Boileau, who crossed Shekhawati in 1831. After completing their project, llay and Rabu follow Lockett and Boileaus’s 180-year-old trail, recreating the past here and illuminating the present there of this fascinating landscape. Both men are depicted in contemporary murals. Their mission was to enquire into, and record the brigandry them affecting local trade. This led to the founding of a Shekhawati Brigade to suppress robbery and bring security to the local merchants. Peace and prosperity returned, creating ideal conditions for a display of conspicuous wealth. The merchants commissioned fine buildings and, as a final touch, their walls were painted. So a military mission led to an artistic one!
Raised and educated in Purbeck, in south English, llay Cooper graduated from London University in 1966. Between study, teaching and working in a quarry, he travelled widely in Asia, spending some thirteen years in India, mostly based in Churu, Rajasthan. His initial nine journeys between England and India were overland, by hitchhiking and buses, culminating in a motorcycle journey from Churu to Purbeck in 2000. His research in Shekhawati was funded by quarry work in England and photo-journalism in India. After documenting Shekhawati’s buildings, he listed those of Diu also for INTACH. These projects were followed by a series of scholarships to study wall paintings in India and Pakistan. He has written many published articles for Indian and British periodicals, five published academic papers and five books. He has also lectured widely on South Asian murals in India, Pakistan and the UK.
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