The Walled city of Lahore where it is known for the vibrant and vivacious life also has another feature which is the fresco work. The Fresco painting or Naqashi is an art or a form of painting done on the walls and ceilings of the buildings. The interesting part of this painting is that it is done on wet plaster. The paint and colors for fresco are made from fresh plants, trees, fruits, vegetable and different elements of earth and nature following a lengthy procedure.
There are two types of fresco painting, buono fresco (wet fresco) and fresco secco (dry fresco). Buono fresco is painting onto wet plaster, which makes a painting last a long time. Fresco secco is painting onto dry plaster, which does not last as long. Buono Fresco is found mostly in Europe and Fresco Secco has been practiced mostly in the subcontinent.
Fresco is an interesting trait found in most of the historic building of Mughal and Sikh era, whereas we do not find it much in the colonial architecture. If we go into the history of Fresco we find that the first fresco-type paintings date back to no less than 30,000 years ago with the paintings created in the caves of France and Spain. At that time it is said that the art was not much refined but was used to communicate and note down the feelings and social developments. These early examples of fresco painting are indication of the long and diverse history of this art form. It is said by the art historians and artists that the early frescoes, painted on the limestone walls of the caves, contained remarkably expressive and realistic figures of horses, bison, bears, lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses, which continue to fascinate researchers and art historians till today.
In the Walled City of Lahore, we can still see the remains of original fresco, somewhere faded and somewhere still intact. Monuments like Shahi Hammam, Wazir Khan Mosque, Masjid Salh Kamboh, Sonehri Mosque, Begum Shahi Mosque, Lahore Fort, Samadhi of Ranjeet Singh, and Havelis like Haveli Dina Nath, Haveli Dhiyan Singh, Haveli Bej Nath, Haveli Nau Nehal Singh, Haveli Jamadar Khushhaal Singh and many other structures are still seen decorated with fresco work. The fresco paintings are based on the historic scenes, fruits, floral designs and other patterns. These are mostly the patterns and designs that depict the use of the place or choice of the artisan. The best examples of fresco work in the Mosque and Hammam of Wazir Khan, Begum Shahi Masjid and also the Golden Mosque. In these monuments you will find a huge floral variety. If we talk about the fresco of Shahi Hammam we will find birds, human faces, pottery, utensils and flowers all inside the cold bath area.
When this monument was being restored in 2014, the Sri Lankan team along with the students of National College of Arts Lahore restored the fresco, and now this monument’s conservation has been appreciated by the UNESCO. The western entrance of the Hammam has interesting human faces painted inside the flowers. It is said that the fresco artisan used to make human faces as their initials. The entire fresco inside Hammam has now been restored. On the hand, in Wazir Khan Mosque you will see innumerable designs that make the Mosque exceptional. Starting from the main entrance till the prayer chamber, you will be lost in the variety and designs of the fresco. If you go to the Mariam Zamani or Begum Shahi Mosque, you will come across intricate geometrical designs. Remains of fresco are seen inside the Mosque of Saleh Kamboh too. The main prayer chamber of Golden Mosque is also decorated with floral fresco designs.
The most well restored and intact fresco paintings are seen in the Victoria School, the haveli of Nau Nehal Singh and Chunna Mandi the Haveli of Jamadaar Khushhal Singh of Sikh era. Most of the other Havelis have some remains of the fresco but as they were converted into residential units, the residents did not bother much about them and covered the fresco with white wash.
The conservationists and fresco experts say that by 1500 BC the techniques of fresco painting evolved to painting on wet plaster, allowing more flexibility in the use and location of frescoes for decorative purposes. The earliest known examples of such frescoes around 1500 BC are to be found in Greece and Morocco. We find fresco work in the subcontinent especially India that dates back to the 1st century BCE to the 6th and 7th CCE. These paintings are seen in Ajanta Caves representing the early Buddha era. Throughout the history of the sub continent fresco work is found in the temples, mosques, havelis, forts and palaces.
During the Muslim period in the subcontinent, as the Mughal rule started this decoration became a part of every monument and building depicting the highest level of aesthetics and creativity. The Mughals developed and promoted this art by giving royal patronage and appreciation to the artisans and painters. Majestic Forts, palaces, residences, mosques and temples were built for which the artists from all over subcontinent and Iran too were commissioned. It is said that experts from other parts of the sub continent especially Iran were called here by the Mughals here for the décor of the buildings.
During the conservation of Shahi Hammam’s Fresco it was a challenge to find the artisans for this work. Here in Pakistan we would hardly find any such experts and artisans. I think the technical training institutes like NAVTEC and TEVTA etc should start such courses so that the people are trained with this art. This art was once the soul of sub continent but it’s sad that now it is nowhere. The students of universities and colleges should be encouraged to learn and research on this art so that there is more and more awareness about this skill.
(The writer is a media professional and can be reached at email@example.com)