It’s a hot late-February afternoon, but Bansilal Nathulal Yadav is so absorbed in his araish-kaam at one of the antique gates of Udaipur’s City Palace that he seems oblivious to the sharp Rajasthan sun. He dips his hand into the paste of ground marble and then spreads it with a little metal plate smoothly over an inch of the parapet. “Araish is a traditional technique of marble plastering in Rajasthan that was used in its havelis, palaces, shrines and monuments. Not only is it beautiful but it also lasts for decades, one doesn’t have to run to the paint store every few years as in the case of modern buildings,” he points out. Yadav is one of the many traditional artisans and craftspersons employed by “Shriji” Arvind Singh Mewar, scion of the House of Mewar, and his team in their endeavour to restore the 16th-century palace in the good, old-fashioned way.
As I gaze at the rich ivory hue of the fresh araish, I am struck by both the beauty of Yadav’s handiwork and of the “living heritage space” (as Shriji Arvind Singh likes to call it) that he’s working in.
The splendour of the City Palace complex, located on a hillock overlooking the waters of Lake Pichola and affording lovely views of the floating architectural gems, Jag Mandir and the Lake Palace hotel, stops you in your tracks. Set within crenellated fort walls and embellished with gardens and fountains, the complex includes, apart from the City Palace built of granite and marble in a grand blend of Rajput and Mughal architectural styles, a clutch of remarkable buildings of other styles. These include the Shambhu Niwas, a colonial-style palace that is home to Shriji and his family and two heritage hotels (Shiv Niwas Palace and Fateh Prakash Palace that are run by Shriji’s HRH Group of Hotels). The precinct is owned and maintained by the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF).
The City Palace is now a museum that sprawls over the old Mardana Mahal and Zenana Mahal. The museum is noted for its collection of 17th and 18th century Mewari miniature paintings. The Mardana Mahal has the famous Mor Chowk with its glass mosaics of peacocks set in the walls and murals showing the seasons of summer, winter and monsoon. It also has the Moti Mahal and the Sheesh Mahal, which contain lovely inlaid mirrorwork, the Bhim Vilas with stories of Radha and Krishna painted on the walls, a glass mosaic gallery and a panoramic view of the city below. The Zenana Mahal, the queen’s quarters to the south, has frescoes, wall paintings and an art gallery.
Some of this royal splendour has, of course, been eroded by the whirligig of time but that’s quite evidently in the process of being rectified. As I look around the precinct in the company of MMCF’s project engineer Colonel D.B. Acharya and conservation architect Mayank Gupta, I find artisans conducting cosmetic surgery at the Ghadial ki Chhatri, one of the two towers at the main gate. They are giving finishing touches to the endlessly-long, barrel-vaulted old saddlery, which has been restored using original materials such as lime mortar and converted into their media centre. There are also craftsmen lending a hand at the Zenana Mahal, where a new photo gallery is being established.
In the former palkhikhana, now a sleek, multi-cuisine restaurant, I see beautifully restored araish pillars. Through the restaurant’s glass windows, I can see Bansilal Nathulal Yadav continuing with the araish-kaam at the entrance to the museum. Over lunch, Jyoti Jasol, head of Arvind Singh’s PR team, informs me that since 1995, the MMCF has financed a number of conservation-related activities in the complex, including substantial restoration work in the Zenana Mahal and the Maharana Mewar Special Library. However, as the cost of renovation and restoration far exceeds the funds available to the foundation, it recently applied to and obtained a grant from the Paul Getty Foundation in Los Angeles to take the conservation project forward.