Wandering Shrines of Rajasthan
By Baani Sekhon, Chandigarh
In this unique and traditional art form, mythological stories and folk tales are meticulously illustrated on long canvas scrolls, some five feet high and 30 feet long. Each scroll or Phad (which means “fold” in the local dialect) depicts a sequentially narrated story dedicated to one or more of the Rajput Deities. But more than that, each is an expression of devotion and sanctity. Every stage of the making of the artwork overflows with religious traditions and rituals.
Commissioned by a priest-singer (known as a Bhopa), the painting, regarded as a traveling temple, is initiated with a prayer offered to the Deity. The artist then begins his task, following strict guidelines. The Bhopa accepts the completed painting with yet another elaborate ceremonial prayer. Once the traditions and ceremonies are concluded, the priest-singer, seen here with his stringed instrument, travels village to village, singing and enacting the pictorial depiction of the Deity portrayed in the holy painting, which he displays so villagers can follow his tale.
Bhilwara, Rajasthan, is the land of origin of Phad paintings, which can be traced back to the tenth century. These paintings serve as portable temples, capturing a mass of divinity in one scroll. Over the centuries, this painting genre has successfully retained its distinct style and visual approach, having been practiced exclusively by artists from the Nayak community, particularly the Joshi family. The techniques and methodology were carefully kept only within the family, handed down generation to generation with great caution. Only the sons of the household were taught the craft. Since daughters would leave the family after marriage, they assisted only with the preparation tasks—although daughters-in-law, as new members of the clan, were permitted to learn and practice the art.
In recent years, however, fearing the disappearance of this art form from its native land, many Joshi clan members have made generous efforts to share the techniques with other artists. To perpetuate this art form and preserve its distinguishing features and techniques, renowned artist Shree Lal Joshi, a Padma Shri awardee, opened a school called Joshi Kala Kendra in 1960 so that others could learn this art style. This school, now called Chitrashala, serves those who would help to supply the burgeoning international demand for this art.
Folk stories tell us that before setting out on a journey, Devnarayan (believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) fulfilled a devotee’s request by asking a Joshi from Bhilwara to depict his story in the form of a Phad. This was the first Phad ever created. Thereafter, Devnarayan assigned a Bhopa to narrate the story to his worshipers whenever requested. The nomadic Bhopas’ oral recital continues to this day. The Joshis themselves, however, believe that their ancestors were first commissioned by Chochu Bhat, a devotee of Lord Devnarayan and early mentor of Devnarayan’s clan.
Spirituality and Rituals
The creation of a new Phad commences with a prayer ceremony in which the Bhopa’s commission for a new Phad is accepted by the artist. For an auspicious and favorable beginning, the first stroke of the painting is made by a girl child (kumari) who is considered pure and pious. She could be from the artists’ or any high-caste brahmin family. Afterwards she is offered new clothes and other gifts.
After drawing a sketch of Ganesha, Saraswati and then Dasha Avatar (the ten incarnations of Vishnu) on the canvas to invoke their blessings, the artist spends weeks and months working tirelessly on the intricate art piece. Finally, on an auspicious day, he invites the Bhopa and signs his name next to the central figure of the Deity portrayed in the painting. The Bhopa’s name is also added. As a last step, he paints the pupils of the main Deity’s eyes, bringing the painting to life and awakening the image of the divine being. The Phad, now a mobile temple, is then given to the Bhopa.
A performance by a Bhopa is revered as a religious ritual. The priest-singer is invited by the villagers to invoke the Deities for their blessings and ward off negativity, especially during difficult and unfortunate times. The villagers bestow offerings in cash and kind upon the Bhopa.
In preparation for the Jagaran (Phad performance), the ground where the holy temple will be unfolded is cleaned and purified with incense. Offerings, including money, grains and fruits, are made in front of the mobile temple. Customarily, the Bhopa wears a special costume, called Baga. The enthralling performance usually starts right after sunset and proceeds throughout the night, concluding at dawn with an arati, the passing of a blessed flame.
Commencing with the invocation of the greater Gods—Ganesha, Saraswati and Vishnu—the narration lasts for 9 to 12 hours, with short intervals for food and interaction between the folk balladeer and the audience. The Bhopa pauses his musical sermon each time he receives a donation, blowing a conch shell to praise the donor and announce his name.
The story painting is displayed as a backdrop, while the Bhopa enacts and sings the epic of heroism and honor, accompanying himself on a two-stringed fiddle-like musical instrument. Meanwhile, his wife (Bhopi) moves close to the Phad and holds an oil lamp near each episode as it is recited by the priest singer, scene by scene, lighting it up against the night darkness.
After years or decades of traveling and folding, a Phad naturally becomes stained and worn. When that time comes, with reverence and fitting rituals, it is immersed in the holy waters of the Ganga or Pushkar Lake. This ritual is called Tandakarna, meaning cooling of the Godly powers.
Making of the Phad
The canvas for a Phad must be durable, strong enough to survive harsh conditions and last for years. For that purpose, the painters select handwoven cotton cloth, called khadi. The coarse cloth is soaked overnight to thicken the unprocessed threads, then starched with a paste of boiled barley flour or rice. The stiffened material is then stretched and dried in the sun.
After the solidified cloth is cut to the required size, it is placed flat on a hard surface and burnished with a moonstone attached to a wooden block. To make this task easier, considering the size and thickness of the bristly cloth, the wooden block has a weight of 45 to 90 pounds on top. The artist polishes the cloth vigorously until he is satisfied that its finish is even, smooth and glossy.
Technique and Color Scheme
Once the artist has prepared the cloth, he defines divisions and subdivisions on the canvas for the sequence of the tale. Notably, the scenes are not arranged randomly or in a linear fashion, nor are they trapped within frames like comic strips. Instead, they are carefully composed with respect to the viewer’s predictable eye movement and logical understanding.
Each scene is first roughly sketched with a light yellow erasable paint, called kacha. The colors used are defined by the age-old guidelines—orange for the figures, yellow for jewelry, green for trees and vegetation, red for clothes and brown for animals and buildings, with no use of gold or silver hues. The application of colors follows an order based on their tonality, starting from the lightest tint to the darkest shade: orange, yellow, green, brown, blue then red. The artist completes the painting by outlining all the elements on the canvas with black, finally animating the historical tale with life.
Traditionally, the paints used by the Phad artists are organic, sourced from natural elements like stones, flowers, plants and herbs. These handmade tints are prepared by vigorously grinding pigments with gum and water for a smooth and even paste. In recent times, however, many contemporary artists have switched to synthetic pigments.
The Unique Style
The Phad storyboarding style distinguishes it from all other folk art. There are many subtle nuances that collectively build it as a narrative tale. For instance, the size of the characters varies based on their social status and the importance of the role they play in the story. In addition, the pictorial events are cleverly interlinked. Figures may overlap from one scene to another, and a common background may be used for consecutive episodes.
In other common stylistic features followed by all Phad artists, every figure is flat and two-dimensional, shown in profile, with large eyes and small noses. Color, symbolism and size are used to identify important characters. Every inch of the canvas is jam-packed with these vibrant, boldly outlined figures, yet the storyboard effortlessly portrays the flow of its legends and events. Stylistic similarities notwithstanding, each of these multi-layered masterpieces is original and exceptional.
Theme and Symbolism
From ancient times the scrolls of Rajasthan’s folk Deities, like Pabuji, Devnarayan, Ramdevji, Mataji and Gogaji, have served as mobile shrines, taking sacred stories and culture to remote communities which have no formal temples. The two most prevalent subjects are the myths of Pabuji (said to be an incarnation of Lord Rama’s brother, Laxman) and Devnarayan (incarnation of Lord Vishnu). Both stories have well-developed narratives. Pabhuji and Devnarayan are always larger than the other figures; they wear red and are invariably shown on horseback as a symbol of holiness.
The epic narrative Pabuji ki Phad, perhaps the best known Phad performance, is held annually at Pabusar, where the audience attendance is in thousands. This festive event is organized by the Jaipur Virasat. In this storyboard, Pabuji’s three courtiers are identified by the color of their horses and attire. Lord Siva, Pabuji’s horse and demons are painted in blue. While these performances are attended by people of all classes, this strict iconography helps unschooled villagers identify the color-coded characters more easily.
The demand for Phads is dwindling fast in Rajasthan’s rural areas, as the next generation of Bhopas are opting for more lucrative professions. One of the last remaining contemporary priest-singers of Rajasthan was Mohan Bhopa, who passed away in 2011. He was known for his captivating and mesmerizing performances; his musical narration brought the Phad’s tale to life for audiences. This revered singer was featured in William Dalrymple’s best selling non-fiction book, Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Currently, his wife Batasi performs with their son Mahavir, keeping the family tradition alive.
Despite its dwindling use in Rajasthan, appreciation for the Phad art style has grown worldwide. Art collectors are now demanding custom canvases. Thus, the paintings are no longer made just for narrating the local sagas. Stories from other popular epics and mythical tales are painted as well.
Common themes include tales from popular mythologies and epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gita Govinda and Hanuman Chalisa. Contemporary subjects like festivals and marriage ceremonies have also become popular.
The paintings remain true to their basic principles. They are still religious in nature, and the techniques, including the formatting of intersecting scenes, are also unchanged. Notably, though, the size of these modern artworks is smaller, as the urban buyers’ purpose is home décor.
Full-time career artists are few at present, though this art form is in high demand and critically appreciated by art enthusiasts internationally. Fortunately, the Joshi community members remain loyally determined to spread their rich, age-old heritage. Workshops and presentations are held regularly on a national level. Chitrashala (Phadchitrakari.com) an established art institute in Rajasthan founded by Shree Lal Joshi, trains artists in strict adherence to the age-old Phad style.
Among today’s most celebrated Phad artists are Kalyan Joshi, Vijay Joshi, Pradeep Mukherjee and Nand Kishor Joshi. Their colorful mosaic-like paintings are available in online art galleries storyltd.com, mojarto.com and gallerymustart.com. Other beautiful and artistic Phad paintings are available for sale at heartforartonline.com, dollsofindia.com, artisera.com, go4ethnic.com, theindiacrafthouse.com and more.