Portable Temples and Other Stories

In the villages of Bhilwara, the priest picks up the lamp and narrates the heroics of Pabuji, the local deity revered by the Gujjar community of travelling herders, using the phad paintings. The phads — painted on horizontal scrolls of cloth with natural colours — portray folklore, scenes from the Ramayana, Rasleela, Hanuman Chalisa, among others. Known as mobile temples, these paintings are brought to life by the bhopa (priest) and his wife, who belong to the nomadic Rabari tribe, as they travel from one village to the other, singing renditions of the gods, using an ancient bowed instrument, Ravanhatta.

“Phad is an artform that is more than 700 years old and from the Bhilwara and Shahpura region of Rajasthan. It is known not only for its vibrant colours, but also the fact that it is accompanied by an oral tradition of rendering the gaatha,” says Pragati Agarwal, curator of the show and founder of Art Tree, a Delhi-based arts organisation.

In the exhibition, “Phad:Mythical Heritage of Bhilwara”, nearly 50 phad paintings are on display, two of which are rare originals, created nearly six decades ago by Bhilwara’s known phad artist, 88-year-old Shrilal Joshi, who is a Padmashree awardee. The recreated paintings are made by his sons, Kalyan and Gopal Joshi, over the last two years.

“Creating a phad is an act of devotion even as it is an artform.  We commence our work with a prayer. Handwoven cloth is soaked overnight so that the threads get thicker. It is then starched, burnished for a smooth and shiny surface and then the phad painter draws the entire narrative spanning the life of the deity on this canvas,” says Kalyan Joshi, who belongs to the 30th generation of the family that’s been engaged with the artform.

The figures in the paintings are rounded, wearing traditional attire and headgear while bright colours are used to fill them. The colours are extracted from natural sources — stones, flowers and herbs, he adds.

For centuries the art form was confined to the Joshi family, but Shrilal Joshi put life into it by establishing Joshi Kala Kunj, now called Chitrashala, in 1960, for artists from all over to learn the secrets of phad paintings. “Till my generation, daughters were not allowed to learn this art form, only daughters-in-law were, so that it could stay limited to the family, but my daughter has broken that tradition and is the first in the family to learn it,” says 49-year old Kalyan Joshi.

There is a set pattern and colour scheme of the characters in a phad, and it is crowded with figures, but they are harmoniously distributed all over the area. The scale of figure depends on the social status of the character and role in the story, and except the villian, the figures do not face the audience.

“The traditional phads only depicted stories of Pabuji and Devnarayanji but were revered only by the Gujjars, so the bhopas started commissioning painting scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Durga Saptashati as they were revered by others castes. We read the sacred texts and then paint the scenes, keeping techniques of the traditional artform alive,” says Joshi.

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