A portable pilgrimage

A portable pilgrimage


A portable pilgrimage

Kojaram is a kaavadiya bhat (storyteller) from the Marwar region of Rajasthan. A select audience watches him with rapt attention as he squats on the ground holding a kaavad (a portable shrine with multiple painted doors that fold into themselves) in his lap, points to the images with a peacock feather, and then begins stories in a definite rhythm.

They are stories from the Ramayana or Mahabharata, or folk tales of his patrons’ (called jajmans) genealogy. He opens the first colourful door and recites names of the donors for whom he is telling the story. One by one he opens new doors and narrates more stories. Eventually he opens all the doors, which makes the kaavad resemble the spread of a peacock’s plumage.

With the mystery of a new turn in the tale behind every door, Kojaram has left the audiences spellbound. They too want to be on his list of patrons, and take his permission to be a donor. “Yes, sure,” he says, but the list of patrons is long, so their names in the narration will be considered after three or four years, he clarifies.

Boxed stories

The kaavads of Rajasthan hold a wealth of stories within their doors. The kaavadiya bhat journeys with this brightly painted wooden box to the homes of his patrons to recite their genealogies and to regale them with the stories of the pantheon of deities painted on the shrine.

It is believed that kaavads also facilitate access to the divine, especially for those who are not allowed to enter the existing temples! The term ‘kaavad’ is derived from the word ‘kivaad’, meaning door, a reference to its form. The paints used to adorn a kaavad are all natural, made of crushed stones into which tree sap is added for a glue-like quality.

While the object serves as an aid to memory for the storyteller, his tales are meant to reaffirm the lineage of his patrons and their exalted place in the community.

“It’s a tradition that binds communities in common memory and mythology,” explains Dr Nina Sabnani, professor at Industrial Design Centre, IIT Mumbai. She was so intrigued by the tradition that she spent many years researching on the subject and has recently launched a book, Kaavad Tradition of Rajasthan: A Portable Pilgrimage. She recalls, “What intrigued me about the kaavad was how its design contributed to the objective of the performance. In a seamless world of the real and the virtual, the kaavad serves to perform a pilgrimage for its patrons. That’s why I call it a portable pilgrimage. The turning of the doors and panels, the stories told along with the paintings and the recitation of the genealogies, all create an experience of a pilgrimage.”

Tales for patrons

Interestingly, each patron is made to feel important through the story. For example, a Jat patron is told he has descended from the jatas (dreadlocks) of Shiva, and this is through a narrative. Each storyteller has 100 to 300 patrons whom he visits once in two-three years.

While the kaavadiyas come from Marwar, the artists and carpenters who make kaavads are from Mewar in Rajasthan and are called suthars. That is why Dr Nina says the tradition survives on a thin thread of relation between the storyteller (kaavadiya), the carpenter-artist suthar and the jajman. A break in this loop will affect the life of this art.
However, the faith and belief in the tradition will keep it alive. As Kojaram says, “If we stop baanchana (storytelling), some calamity will befall us, and that will be our end.”

The good news is that the kaavad makers have adapted to new jajmans. They make smaller kaavads in various colours and themes for tourists. Storytellers perform for their hereditary patrons as well as for urban audiences, if invited. No wonder, you will see some illustrations of patrons seated on aeroplanes. Even they improvise on their stories. For example, a kaavadiya bhat said during one of his performances “...phir unhonhe bhagwan ko jaldi se mobile lagaya.” (Then they soon call God from a mobile phone). These are perhaps their ways of re-inventing themselves for the changing times so that their art lives on.

Collaboration with artists to create new forms is another way to keep the tradition alive. Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur last year had a session on this art that brought Kojaram face to face with his new set of international enthusiasts who cued up to be on his list as jajmans.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox