That's how a story unfolds

Folk art

That's how a story unfolds

As each brightly painted door of a ‘kawad’ opens, it unfurls a chapter of a story, explains  Brinda suri, about Rajasthan’s captivating pictorial storytelling

 The tradition of storytelling varies across India, yet is bound by a common thread. Music, dance and visual spreads are constant elements used to convey a tale. There are as many ways to tell tales as there are regions in the country. The kawad of Rajasthan is one among India’s enthralling inheritance of pictorial narratives. The kawad essentially is a portable shrine. Small in size and made with wood, it is shaped like a temple with multiple foldable doors and a sanctum sanctorum. On these doors — that can be up to 12 or more in number — episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and folktales are attractively painted.

A kawad bhat or traditional storyteller opens these doors in sequence as he narrates the painted story to his audience in a characteristic rhythmic tone. As the story unfolds so does the kawad, quite magically so. The narration takes about an hour, and as the climax approaches, the final door is opened to reveal the three supreme deities: Sita, Rama and Laxman; the only three that are represented as figures carved in wood in this painted narrative. By this time the kawad is completely open and resembles a bird with its wings spread wide. What looked like a small wooden box at the beginning of the story-telling session appears like an elaborately painted panel now. It’s a sight that captivates, and the entire experience is impressive.

Down the ages 

As is observed, the history of a folk art is always ambiguous. Each legend seems plausible, adding to the charm and mystery of a folk tradition. Similar is the case with kawad. Most folklorists trace it back to Shravan Kumar, a mythological figure from the Ramayana. A devoted lad, he set off on a pilgrimage carrying his blind parents on a kawadi (flat, big basket hung on either end of a bamboo staff, balanced on the shoulders).

The pilgrimage could not be completed as Shravan was accidentally shot by King Dasharatha, father of Lord Rama, when he had gone to collect water for his parents at a brook in a forest. On realising his mistake, a repentant king asked the dying son what his last wish was. A composed Shravan said as his parents would now not reach the holy shrine they were headed for, the temple would have to go to them. 

As a tribute to Shravan began the tradition of mobile temples or kawads. It is said that those who can’t undertake a pilgrimage invite a kawad bhat home to fulfil their desire of visiting a shrine.

“Kawad is a custom dating back at least 500 years,” says Dwarka Prasad Jangid, a renowned kawad artist from Bassi village in Chittorgarh district, Rajasthan. “It started towards the end of the Mughal rule when worship in temples was disallowed by Emperor Aurangzeb. Paying obeisance to the kawad was a way of hailing the Gods in a shrine,” he affirms. This history too sounds credible! 

Wood and mortar 

Kawads today come in sizes ranging from three inches to four feet. “Traditionally, kawads were between one feet and two feet. These needed to be light and easy to carry as they were placed on the shoulders. These days, outside our region, kawad has become more of a décor item. Hence we make them in many sizes, depending on customer demand.

We have specially created small sizes for the foreign market,” informs Jangid, who belongs to a community of Brahmins skilled in  constructing kawads. “The kawad bhats belong to a different community. In the days gone by, when a kawad was solely used for worship, the bhats used to specify the theme they wanted and we would paint accordingly,” he adds.

Kawads are usually made with mango or ardu wood. Panels are sliced from the wood, and the first step involves applying a coat of khadia, a local white chalk powder. Thereafter, the colour red is painted on all panels. Red is the most common base colour; green and blue being the other lesser-used options. “These days we also prepare black-on-white kawads, as urban customers request for this minimalist colour combination,” smiles Jangid. Once the red base is ready, artists sketch the entire story on the panels and subsequently fill in the colours to bring alive the vibrant kawad.

The painting of all kawads is according to a set pattern: episodes from the Ramayana feature on the left side doors while scenes from Lord Krishna’s life are presented on the right. At the head of the kawad is Surya, the sun god. On its first doors are two strong-bodied figures meant to be dwarpalaks or gatekeepers. On the reverse are delicately painted figures shown with a reverential expression signifying devotees. All other panels have narratives from the Epics. 

Nouveau themes 

Jangid’s kawads were prominently featured in the 2013 edition of the India International Trade Fair held at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. The artist is known for his creative skills, and he has used the concept of the kawad to spread social messages.

One of these is Meena ki Kahani, the story of an educated girl who improves the living standard of her family. Another one is Jungle ki Kahani, on eco-conservation. 

“New themes are in demand, and what better way to combine a traditional craft to convey a contemporary thought?” he asks. The coming together of past and present is also a way to ensure a craft does not get wiped out but continues to survive with a modern makeover.

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