Tales come alive on cloth

Tales come alive on cloth

Tales come alive on cloth

Art is known to have preserved history by recording significant events of the past in colourful murals and paintings.

Phad painting of Rajasthan is one such form that has played an important role in conserving the culture of the region.

From tales of gods and goddesses to stories of brave men and women, phad paintings have immortalised incidents and local legends.

Painted in vibrant colours, coupled with intricately drawn figures that cover every inch of the canvas, these large cloth murals depict a single story from start to finish. But the fate of this beautiful folk art is resting precariously in the hands of artists from a small community in the desert state of Rajasthan, and Prakash Joshi is one of them.

From a prop to an artform

Speaking about the origins of the artform, Prakash says, “Phad is a Rajasthani word, which is pronounced as pad, which means to read. This technique was developed in the 10th century, when people had no means of entertainment.

Movies and theatre did not exist at that time. So these paintings were created as a backdrop for storytelling sessions and performances of Bopas or the priestly clan, who would narrate these stories with the accompaniment of music.”

Prakash belongs to the Joshi community who were assigned the task of creating these colourful cloth murals. These artists are called chiteras, and belong to the Bhilwara region of Rajasthan.

“My family has been making phad paintings for the last 600 years. We paint the stories of the local heroes of Rajasthan. Earlier, the most popular stories were of Pabuji and Devnarayan. The locals believed that Pabuji was an incarnation of Laxmana and Devnarayan of Vishnu.

The Gujjars (cowherds) are the followers of Devnarayan and the Rajputs (who would ride camels) are the devotees of Pabuji.”

Like most folk paintings in India, phad also involves the use of natural elements. “We first use rice or wheat paste to treat the cloth before painting the murals. This process is called kalaph lagana.

Colours used in the paintings are natural stone colours that are available in the region. We crush and grind these stones and once they are in the powder form, we extract mica from them, and mix in the base colours.

We use fixed colours in the light to dark format. Orange, yellow, red, brown, black, and lastly blue. Earlier, blue was only used for colouring the rivers, sky or some demon, but now we use them for clothes as well.”

The anatomy of figures in phad paintings differ from the ones drawn in folk artforms like Madhubani and Patachitra. The figures have round faces and curvaceous bodies and only one side of their face is seen on canvas.

Every artform has evolved with time, and phad is no different. From the initial two stories, the chiteras eventually started incorporating several other legends and epics.

“We have started painting several other mythological stories like Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Hanuman Chalisa etc. My latest subject is the story of Tirupati Balaji. I am also working on a phad depicting the eight lessons of Ramayana with verses,” the National Award-winning artist said.

Experimenting with style

“Apart from the subjects, we have also been experimenting a lot with the technique. Previously, we made extensive use of colour. But now we have started making phad in the form of line drawings, with double colours and in collage format. We have managed to incorporate the artwork in sarees, dresses, bed linens etc,” he adds.

So, what was it like growing up in a house full of artists? The humble chitera says, “In families belonging to our community, this art is not taught, but passed on from one generation to another. We would observe the elders at work and pick up the nuances automatically.

They would not give us any drawing equipment, but would ask us to sit with them and observe their movements on cloth. We were not allowed to use pencils. We were just asked to draw free-hand. We couldn’t even afford paper. We would practise on leftover cloth or rag, which our father or uncles would discard after painting a phad.”

However, the age-old traditions and beliefs have stifled the artform and left very few artists to take it further. “Earlier, in our community, even girls weren’t taught to make a phad with the fear that when they got married, they would take the artform to their husband’s family.

The artists didn’t want to lose their monopoly. Hence, phad did not get enough exposure in other parts of the country. We are only 13 or 14 artists in the world who practice the form. Since men in our community have started seeking greener pastures, we have started teaching women,” he explains.

Giving his own twist to the traditionally rigid folk painting, Prakash has carved a niche for himself.

The unassuming artist says, “I started experimenting with phad style purely because of financial compulsions. Sticking to the traditional form would have limited our reach in the market.

We face a lot of competition from paintings like Madhubani and Patachitra. Each buyer has a particular taste, which does not necessarily conform to the tradition patterns.

So we take their requirements into consideration and customise the paintings. I have even started including verses in the paintings since the storytelling tradition has long gone.”

Besides being adept in the drawing technique, a  phad chitera also has to be well-informed about the subject. The story he is planning to paint and capture on cloth needs to be well researched and depicted with honesty.

“When buyers ask me to paint a particular subject, I ensure that I read the complete text and take in the nuances of the story and capture as much of it as I can on the canvas.

It took me a month to paint Hanuman Chalisa on canvas. Most people don’t know about Aditya Hridaya Stotra, which Ram recites in Ramayan before the war in Lanka. One of the buyers wanted me to capture that incident and it took me 20 days to finish the artwork,” he recalls.

In order to keep this dying art alive, Prakash has been participating and teaching in workshops across the country.

“I am happy when we get a good response during workshops in metros. I am trying to teach people to differentiate between various artforms. I want people to be able to identify a phad painting.” This artist is indeed an excellent teacher, as he goes to each student correcting their drawings, and not giving up till they have got it right.

 “Most art teachers just draw on the board and ask their students to replicate the drawing, without teaching them how it is done. I try to go around teaching each and every student how a particular drawing is done. No one in my class is allowed to use an eraser, as I want them to learn from their mistakes.

By teaching others, I am able to improve my technique and better my skills as an artist,” he says with a smile.

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