Artists

Kavad ‘A Storytelling Box of Rajasthan’

ramayan and krishna leela storytelling kavad

Kavad Painting Style

It is an artist's creation , a storyteller's medium and a believer's shrine. Few crafts in india are as unique and layered with stories as is kavad. Commonly described as a 'portable shrine' Kavad is a wooden 'box' or 'cabinet' with many folding doors, each of which is vividly painted with depictions of deities, stories of myths and legends, and tales from the epics. For centuries, traditional storytellerrs in rajasthan have used the Kavad to narrate religious stories and legends take them to people's homes. A gallery of art in itself, a kavad is a fascinating blends and take them to people's homes. A Gallery of art in itself, a Kavad is a fascinating blend of carpentry, painting, storytelling and, of course, faith.

A Kavad Piece

A Kavad Piece

The word 'Kavad' is said to be derived from the Hindi 'Kivaad', which means a 'wooden door', and the art of making it is the preserve of the Suthar community in Bassi village in Rajasthan. The Suthars are carpenters and painters, and they craft these beautiful wooden structure as well. But the actual storytellers are from the Kavadia Bhatt community, or sometimes even priests who carry these Kavads with them to tell thier tales.

This practise of storytelling by Kavadias is known as Kavad Bachana. The Kavadias believe they are descendants of Lord Vishwakarma, the divine architect of the universe and supreme God of the Arts.

Origin of Kavad

Kavad (or kavad) art is a 500-year-old art tradition originally practiced by a group of Jangid Brahmins near Chittorgarh, Rajasthan.The kavad is a portable wooden temple containing multiple panels within a panel which unfold outwards on either side, to reveal a shrine in the center. A traditional kavad would typically be painted in red with 10 doors reciting Krishna’s and Rama’s stories.

picture of Chittorgarh, rajasthan

Chittorgarh, Rajasthan

The origin of the kawad art form is an interesting one. The Kawadia Bhatt people were bards who went from village to village reciting epic tales from Hindu mythology. Their wandering lifestyle made it difficult for them to have a permanent temple for worship. So they created these “shrine-cupboards,” which were carried on the shoulders of the Kawaadia Bhat men. The storytellers would open the panels of the kawad in the sequence of events in the narration. The recitation of the tales of Krishna, the Pandavas, Ram and Sita, through the kawads was instrumental in keeping these religious traditions alive in some of the remote parts of Rajasthan. They are one of the oldest interactive story telling tool.

kavad art

Ramayana Storytelling 20th century Kavad art

Portable shrines are an ancient tradition. There is evidence to show that the Egyptians and the Greeks used tablets or stelas of stone or wood as portable shrines, some dating back to around 2000 BCE. The idea of portable shrines was that devout travellers could carry their shrines with them while on the move. They were used for the daily worship of regular folk who were on the move, or by monks, medicants and priests who begged for alms as they travelled.

In Rajasthan, crafts like pabuji ki Phad, paintings dedicated to the folk deity Pabuji, Kathputli or puppets, and Kavad are used as portable shrines or as objects of storytelling, that narrate legends and tales of deities, epics and local legends. it is believed that artisans started making these wooden shrines as a sturdy alternative to cloth paintings.

Communities

There are three main communities involved in the tradition. First is the Suthar community that makes these colorful wooden boxes or Kavads. Second is the Kavadiya Bhat who uses it to tell stories. The third is the Jajman or patrons who commission as well as consume these stories.

We know that this tradition has existed for at least 400 years. I feel it must be much older, it is just that it got documented around 400 years back.

Suthar Community

Suthar community almost exclusively makes Kavads. It is a carpenter community that mostly lives in a village of Bassi on Chittor-Kota road in Mewar region of Rajasthan. It is believed that they were brought here from Nagaur in Shekhawati region by Price Jaimal of Devgarh sometime in 16th CE. Suthars are also called Basayatis – a name I assume derived from the name of the village – Bassi. These artisans trace their own lineage from Vishwakarma – the cosmic architect. Remember Vishwakarma not just created the universe but also the golden city of Dwarka for Sri Krishna.

Kavadiya Bhat

Kavadiya Bhat, the storyteller takes the temple to the Jajman or patron’s house, tells stories and collects his Dakshina or fees. The tradition is called Kavad Banchana or Katha. It is a way of living for him. What is interesting is the reversal of who visits whom. Most of the times it is the devotees who visit the temple, but with this, it is the deity who comes home in the form of Kavad shrine.

picture of kavadiya bhatt

Picture of Kavadiya Bhatt

Kavadiya Bhats are traditional genealogists who also play the twin role of a storyteller. They tell the family histories through the intricately painted panels. The patrons, a primary source of income, are inherited by the Kavadiya Bhats. Kavadiya Bhats also travel village to village telling stories. They sit in front of the audience and tell the story. In between, they would open a flap beneath the story panels and collect donations. Smart ones would stop at the logical points when the audience curiosity is at its peak to collect the donation.

Making The Kavad

The process of making a Kavad is tedious, and a single Kavad can take more than a week to fashion. Kavads range in size from as small as 10 cm to 3 feet tall. The basic wooden structure, semal, and somtimes even the sweet neem tree.

The process starts with a Suthar cutting pieces of wood and shaping them into the panels and other parts that make up the Kavad, with simple tools like a saw. These pieces are coated with khadia, a local white chalk powder, which gives the wood a white colour. The panels are then painted and decorated.

Artisan Drawing the outline on the color base

Artisan Drawing the Outline on the Color Base

Kavad artists use colours derived from minerals, which can be procured from the market. These mineral colours are in the form of powders which are mixed with a solution of tree resin which acts as an adhesive. The colour palette used by artists is composed of white, red, blue, yellow, green and black.

Once the mineral colors are prepared and the wooden structure is given its base color, the artist makes the outline of the figures using a fine brush. The original Kavad was always on a red background. Nowadays Kavads are made to suit a variety of tastes and functions, and are made in a range of colors. For smaller Kavads the colorful figures are painted directly on the wooden surface. Artist does not use a design guide and has the plan for the painting in his head. The colors are applied one by one in layers, each layer adding the next stage of depth and detailing.

Artisan Paintinf the Wooden Panel

Artisan Painting the Wooden Panel

They are painted, which is followed by fine, detailing. Once painted, these wooden pieces are assembled using drills, nails and hinges. The ultimate purpose of a Kavad was the value of the story, the painting style and delineation of characters was not required to be finely etched. 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 coloring. The final application of the black outline suddenly brings the flat figures to life.

Artisan giving the Final touch to Kavad wooden panel

Artisan giving the Final touch to Kavad wooden panel

Kavad with Modern day Themes

Traditionally, Kavad has depicted episodes from the lives of Ram, Vishnu and Krishna. Themes from the Ramayana or Mahabharata, or stories of aborigines such as Pabji and Bhomiyaji, or even educational values ​​were also found in the Kavad, so it is no longer an exclusive movable shrine. It is also used as an decor piece in urban areas.

However, like many other Indian crafts, Kavad faces an uncertain future. Unavailability of high-quality wood, high raw material prices and declining demand are major challenges for craftsmen. As for the storytellers, television and other forms of media have grabbed the attenstion of people, who are shedding tradition in favour of technology. Sadly, even in rural india, people are no longer interested in this unique art of storytelling.

Kavad Pieces
Kavad with Modern-days Theme

Kavad with Modern-days Theme

Since earning a livelihood from Kavad is becoming increasingly difficult, the younger generation is switching to other professions. And while crafts organisation like Dastkari Haat Samiti are attempting to popularise this craft through fairs and exhibitions, there's still a lot to be done to preserve this beautiful legacy.

Digital platform Peepul Tree works closely with artisans across India to promote Kavad and spread it to global markets through e-commerce portals. At Peepul Tree, you can find exquisite Kavads crafted by Dwarka Prasad Jangid of Bassi, who has been practicing the art of Kavad for years, following a family tradition. Kavad is truly an extrodinary craft, preserving stories and legacies. Hopefully, its own story will have a happy ending.

One thought on “Kavad ‘A Storytelling Box of Rajasthan’

  1. Mala Shah says:

    Where can I buy kavad box of story telling

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