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Travelling Tales and Sacred Shrines: Devotion Through the Kavad Tradition

The Regal Origins of Kavad Art

Rajasthan has been the source of many interesting artistic traditions. Be it Phad, Arayash fresco making or Miniature painting, the Home of the Kings has been the birthplace of many different styles and techniques. From this regal region comes another folk art tradition that is not very well known: a technique of building and painting portable shrines or prayer boxes known as Kavad art.

This unique cultural treasure seamlessly combines three distinct crafts to create mesmerising mobile story-telling devices. Rooted in a village named Bassi in the Chittorgarh District, the Kavad is more than a work of art; it’s a testament to the skills of the Suthars, Chitrakars, and Bhats who collaborate to bring these exquisite pieces to life.

Historical Roots and Ancestry

The Kavad tradition in Rajasthan dates back to nearly 400 years ago. It originated in the small village of Bassi near Udaipur. Kavad art combines the best elements of three disciplines: carpentry, painting, and narration.

Kavad art has a tragic yet poignant origin story. Surely you have heard of the story of Shravan Kumar? Ram’s father King Dashrath had been out hunting when he spotted a movement far away. He shot an arrow in that direction, but when he reached the spot to collect his prey, he realised that he had not shot an animal but a young boy.

Shravan was a dutiful son who was killed by King Dashratha, who mistook him for a deer. Shravan had been carrying his blind parents, Shantanu and Gyanvati, in a kawadi as they wished to visit the four holy sites of Hindu pilgrimage (char dham ki yatra).

As his last wish, he requests that the king bring the shrine to his parents so they can worship the gods with ease. It is believed that this is what inspired the Kavad tradition of creating portable shrines.

The Kavad Artisans and their Craft

The Kavad is a sacred shrine and a temple, but it is also a portable storytelling device. Three professions are involved in the creation of this unique vestige: carpentry, artistry, and story-telling.

Let’s delve into the background of the carpenter (suthar), artist (chitrakaar), and story-teller (bhat) of Kaavad art.

The story-tellers of the Kavad tradition were called ‘bhats’. They call themselves ’Bhanwar Bhats’ and trace their ancestry back to a divine being called Bhanwar Bhat. ‘Bhanwara’ means bumblebee. The origins of this name are rooted in a niche mythological tale: Once, a small speck of ash fell from the forehead of Lord Shiva and turned into a bee. Shiva made the bee a human and bestowed the identity of ‘Bhanwar Bhat’ upon it. The bhats believe that they are his descendants.

The purpose of the Kaavad was the story it depicted, not the art itself. It was only much later, when Kavads began to be seen as art pieces, that the painters put more effort into the quality of lines and colouring. Previously, most Kavads featured art that was in line with common folk traditions.

Kavad Making: The Process of Creation

The Suthars are carpenters, but they are also artists. Under their skillful hands, the wood of the mango and semla trees turns into panels, pivots, hinges, and moving parts.

They don’t assemble these panels just yet- first, they need to be painted. Painting the panels first is easier than having to struggle to paint the nooks and crannies of the finished box!

Only mineral colours are used in the Kavad art form. The artists buy powdered mineral pigments from the local market, which they mix with tree resin, or gond, to create natural paint. The gond acts as a binder and holds the mixture together. The colour palette of Kaavad art is limited to red, black, blue, green, black, and white.

The Techniques of Kavad Making

The artist first prepares the mineral colours required for the painting process. After that, they add a base colour to the entire wooden surface. Traditionally, the base colour would always be red, but now it can be any colour that the artist or patron wants it to be.

Once the base coat is dry, the artist begins to add thin and fine outlines to the composition. Finally, they fill in the colours of different figures and add the minute details as well. For smaller kavads, they don’t add the outlines, instead choosing to paint the figures directly.

Once they have painted all the individual pieces of the Kavad, they assemble the final structure.

The Kavad’s Traditional Structure

The traditional kavad was made according to a particular format. It was 12 inches tall with 12-16 panels on opposite sides. Each kavad had 51 story frames. When it is closed, it is guarded by a pair of Dwarapalakas or guardians.

The first pair of doors opens to reveal a shrine to Lord Vishnu seated on a serpent with Lakshmi by his side. The inner sides of these doors have cosmic sun and moon patterns, as well as references to the Ramayana.

Below the shrine to Vishnu, a section in the centre is dedicated to the life of the patron saint of the bhats, Kundana Bai. Inside the inner panels are more scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The right panel contains stories of Lord Krishna, whereas the one on the left commemorates Lord Rama.

Below the left door lays a secret panel: one dedicated to patrons and other miscellaneous details relevant to the bhats. This panel was not part of the Kavad’s narration.

The right door opens to a panel called the ‘Bhakt Paath’, which is dedicated to the faithful. The rest of the sections contain illustrations of various occupations: all united through their devotion.

There is a panel called ‘Karni Bharni’, which preaches that the evil you sow will come back to harm you. Another panel called ‘Jajman Path’ is dedicated to the ‘jajmans’, the patrons of the Kavad tradition.

Each Kavad would have a donation chamber that collected funds for two separate purposes. One was to collect donations for Kundana Bai. This fund would be spent on feeding cows. The other was for the bhats and their story-telling services.

(source: Google Arts and Culture)

The Kavad’s Evolution and Adaptation

Kavad artists like Dwarka Prasad and Satyanarayan Suthar are bringing about a revolution in this art form. They have begun exploring themes like the Jataka tales and creating Kaavads that celebrate major milestones in the lives of customers.

They also create simplified versions that take less time to craft and are very appealing souvenirs to tourists due to their portable nature and unique cultural significance.

Satyanarayan also creates Kavad designs that teach kids the alphabet. These make for great toys as they promote learning through fun and interaction.

Want to learn more about India’s rare art and craft forms? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store and use its features to stay updated on all things traditional art! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello

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