The very title of Rama Metha's story (1977) - Inside the haveli, or in the French translation A l'ombre du haveli - suggests much of the history of Rajasthan. This parched region in north-west India, ever craving for the cool relief of shadows, is a difficult yet astonishing land, where the harshness of the terrain stands in stark contrast to the magnificent grandeur and variety of the architecture - fortresses, temples, sandstone palaces, fountains, domestic and public constructions, such as the great cisterns designed to collect water, and, of course, the haveli, the splendid homes of the Marwari merchants.
Though originally from the area around Jodhpur, Pali and Naguar, the Marwari have since scattered throughout India and Pakistan, living in a number of distinct social groups. With their deep feeling for their community and traditions, these merchants and entrepreneurs have always been devoted to their work and their families. In the past, they transformed their homes into privileged spaces, ("enclosed places", as the Persian word haveli originally meant), separated from the world outside not only by their walls but even more by the intimate atmosphere pervading the interior. The haveli's fountains, its pavilions punctuated by courtyards, and its frescoed rooms decorated with stone and wood carvings make it simultaneously a home and an oasis, a space to preserve the innocence of the women and children, to keep memories safe, and to fulfil the dream of a small benevolent world where one can live a well-ordered life surrounded by one's loved ones.
In this way the haveli is like a magic box, a realm of repetitive harmonies where the decorations seem to mirror each other endlessly. The blue designs painted on the pale background of the walls are the same as the mixtilinear shapes on the doors, windows, carved panels, and tiles. The floors are strewn with white cotton carpets decorated with sometimes vivid, sometimes abstract forms of flowers, streams, and intertwining geometric designs. All in all, the effects seem to echo each other, as in a song in which one melody merges subtly into the next and one rhythm into another.
Underlying the patterns and the melodies of the haveli is water, with its promise of comfort and relief. So rare in this sun-baked land, it often features in the songs sung by the women of Rajasthan. The water that flows in the courtyard fountains follows its ideal course through the deep refreshing indigo of the frescoes and carpets.
This choice of colour is particularly meaningful in India, where the cultivation and masterful process of making indigo dye is based on traditions and well-established economic systems dating back thousands of years. Indeed, the word indigo itself derives from the name India.
Many cultures, including ancient Persia, Japan and China, have valued indigo as one of their most precious colours. Extracted from the roots of the plant in a multi-phased process of fermentation and oxidation during which the colour transforms from green, to yellow, and on to crimson, indigo is regarded as the colour of the spirit and of the greatness of soul, the colour of the elect, the sacred colour attributed to the pure of heart. In Hindu and Tantric symbolism, indigo is associated with the "chakra of awareness", otherwise known as the "third eye", the channel through which the outer world is brought into contact with our intuition, our most profound awareness with its superior perception and vision.
In a country accustomed to a continual interaction between the worlds of poetry, art, music and colour, it is not surprising that this subtle chromatic language is written into the haveli in the white of its walls and the cotton thread of its carpets, where indigo is interwoven with the intensely pure white of the cotton. Cultivated and processed in India since ancient times, cotton is a simple, in some way "absolute" and indispensable material. It is made exclusively from cellulose - that is, not from animal sources and therefore containing neither protein nor impurities - and then spun, woven, and dyed.
In the Indigo Flowers carpets, the blue and white symbolize the haveli gardens, a heaven of water, silence and shade. Within the borders of these carpets, as in the gardens, a space of serenity is created, apart from the every day world.
The flowers, referring to good luck and childhood memories, are attractively arranged in traditional patterns with a central medallion and background grid; the elegant decorative elements are simple yet graceful, with their reassuring two-dimensionality and rhythmic repetition, like the familiar verses of a fable.
Among the delicate, intentionally abstract motifs we can recognize the iris, the plumeria, the hibiscus, the lotus flower (which serves to protect the home thanks to the intervention of Lakshmi, goddess of health and prosperity), and the precious indigo lily, a domestic flower used in marriage rituals as an image of fidelity and devotion.
These ornamental forms are interspersed with other ancient designs, echoes of geometric patterns believed to bring good luck which the women of the villages would paint on their floors to invoke the protection of the gods, and slender interlocking lines, spirals and configurations like the finest lace.
"Indigo Flowers", the indigo and cotton carpets of Rajasthan, celebrate the world of the haveli, a secret paradise protected as much by the discretion of its inhabitants as by the perimeter of its walls, a microcosm governed by the principle of harmonious equilibrium and the cult of love and serenity.
Crossing its threshold, one steps into a garden of rare beauty and dignity, whose delicate flowers seem forever ready to be lovingly chosen.