An 'unboxing'

An 'unboxing'
The evidence of the antiquity of painted-narrative traditions extends from architectural remains and murals to textual evidence that dates back to the 3rd century BC. Serving the needs of a broad swath of people by bringing access to religious stories and didactic teachings, the creativity of the myth-teller was expressed not only through the orality of the storytelling but the painted imagery of the characters that peopled the story.

From easily portable rolled-up scrolls and painted textiles to wooden devices, the stories were transported from village to village to be unveiled to gatherings of people by the itinerant myth-tellers.

In the age of cinema, television and digital media, this tradition is now rarely seen, though there are still some rural pockets of Rajasthan where miniature portable shrines — kaavads­ — are an existent tradition that continues to be brought to the doorstep of devotees across the state.

The kaavad conjures up a temple with narrative myths vividly illustrated, the detailed figures and scenes hand-painted. This wooden shrine, with its ingeniously hinged multiple doors that are folded concertina-type, is ceremoniously opened during the recitation by the itinerant storyteller-priest — the kaavadiya bhat. A single kaavad can be used to recite multiple stories, each finding place in the painted panels, doors and corners of the kaavad, from the depiction of episodes from the Hindu epics, stories of local hero-gods and saints, family genealogies to heroic deeds of clan ancestors.

The viewing of the kaavad simulates a visit to a shrine as the kaavadiya bhat’s recitation, called the kaavad banchna, leads the devotee through the spaces characteristic of a temple.

Moving from panel to panel, the bhat draws his audience deeper by folding and unfolding doors to reach the innermost chamber of the sanctum sanctorum where the doors open to eventually reveal the deity. Attending the recitation is considered to be part of the devotees’ sacred ritual duty, and to make gifts in cash or kind to the kaavadiyabhat part of their obligation.

In Rama’s time
The origin of the kaavad dates back to the epic Ramayana when Raja Dashrath, the father of Lord Rama, accidentally killed Shravan Kumar during his hunting expedition. Shravan Kumar, who was taking his blind parents on a pilgrimage, asked Raja Dashrath with his dying breath for help in fulfilling his vow by bringing the temple to his parents. Thus the kaavad originated.

The origin myth of the kaavadiya bhats extends back in time to the mythical Queen Kundanabai who possessed a kaavad but did not have anyone to interpret the story of the temple deity for her; so she called for a person and the tradition of singing and reciting the kaavad started.

Kumhara village in Bhopalgarh Tehsil in Jodhpur district is where the kaavadiyabhats live, with the almost 40 families who reside here having their roots as bhats.

The set-up
The rectangular construction of the kaavad outer-box is usually 12.5 inch in length, with a width of about five inch as it is sized for the convenience of bhats who travel from village to village. Carried with the respect and deference due to a holy object, the bhat holds the kaavad in front of his upper body, strung with a strong rope that is strapped around his neck and shoulder, and supported by his hands at the base of the kaavad.

Following time-honored traditions, each kaavad was specially customised to the requirements of the kaavadiya bhat by five families of the Jangid-Suthar community of carpenters based in the village of Bassi in Chittoor, Rajasthan, who constructed and painted the mobile shrine. Painted in vivid colours of red, blue, yellow, and tonal-skin colours, the figures are usually outlined in black. Of note is the panel of the kaavad that depicts the kaavadiya bhat’s patron. The bhats instruct the Suthar to draw the image of their main patron or jajmaan in a flattering manner, often made to sit heroically on a camel.

While these once-sacrosanct customs are on the decline and the kaavadiya bhats’ visit to his patrons becoming rarer, the makers of kaavad have expanded the scope of their craft.

The wooden cabinet, usually made of mango wood, is now put to contemporary use as new stories have been introduced. The temple shrine has taken on the new role of storytelling device that extends its application as a teaching tool with alphabets, numerals and even traffic rules on the panels, and as an effective device communicating public health messages in rural areas.

And, as a decorative object for urban homes, it is produced in many sizes. Huge ones are also made for museums and exhibitions. However, like most things in India, there are adaptations and changes as the tradition takes on a new avatar. In the rough and tumble of heavy traffic, a portable shrine is being transported by cycle from place to place, waiting to be unveiled for a crowd of devotees.
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