art heritage

Phad paintings: Rajasthan’s travelling temples are fading away after half a millennium

Fewer than 10 artists practice the art full-time in the country.

For artist Kalyan Joshi, each painting is an act of devotion. Before that first stroke of colour on his canvas, handwoven cloth in this case, a prayer is offered to either Pabuji, a folk deity of Rajasthan, or Devnarayan, an incarnation of Hindu god Vishnu. Joshi then starts working on the blank cloth which, over the next few months, becomes crowded with a narrative spanning the entire life of the deity. This devotional Rajasthani folk art form is called phad.

More than 700 years old, phad originated in the Bhilwara region of Rajasthan and owes its popularity to its accompanying oral tradition. Phad paintings are part of an elaborate song-and-dance performance by a pair of balladeers, usually a priest and his wife – called bhopa and bhopi – belonging to the Rabari tribe of nomadic cattle and camel herders. They travel from village to village with their ravanhatta, a two-string instrument and using the phad paintings as visual aides, perform dramatic renditions of stories from the Ramayana, Hanuman Chalisa and other mythological tales.

A phad painting depicting scenes from the Ramayana.
A phad painting depicting scenes from the Ramayana.

The idea to create these scrolls, it is believed, came to the members of the Rabari tribe when they realised that there was no one fixed temple that they could visit. So, instead, they created temples that could visit them.


School of phad

Till as recently as 50 years ago, the form of phad was exclusively practiced by the artists of Joshi lineage of the Chippa caste. The Joshi artists were commissioned by the bhopa and bhopi to create the phad artworks and carefully guarded the techniques associated with the art.

However, one of the most celebrated phad artists and Kalyan’s father, Shree Lal Joshi, realised the need to let in others on the secrets of phad and established Joshi Kala Kunj, a school of phad, in 1960 to popularise the art. The school, now called Chitrashala, teaches phad art to those from outside the clan.

Kalyan and his brother Gopal are carrying forward their father’s legacy by introducing new themes without compromising on the traditional techniques.

A phad painting depicting Raas-Leela.
A phad painting depicting Raas-Leela.

One of the biggest differences in how artists practice phad today is that they no longer wait for a bhopa and bhopi to commission a painting. They have also started depicting simple scenes like marriage processions or a hunt in the forest along with religious themes.

Explaining the process of making phad, Kalyan said: “First, the handwoven cloth is soaked overnight to make the threads thicker. It is then starched, burnished for a smooth and shiny surface and then we start drawing. The figures are rounded, wear traditional attire and headgear and bright colours are used to fill them in.”

A phad painting depicting the Satyanarayan Katha.
A phad painting depicting the Satyanarayan Katha.

The colours used in phad are painstakingly extracted from natural sources like stones, flowers and herbs. According to Pragati Agarwal, founder of Art Tree that recently organised an exhibition of phad paintings in New Delhi, the artists have now also started using some chemical dyes to make their works stand out.

The exhibition, titled Phad: Mythical Heritage of Bhilwara, had on display works by Shree Lal, Kalyan and Gopal Joshi.

Traditionally, said Agarwal, orange is used for limbs, yellow for ornaments and clothing, green for nature, brown for architectural designs, red to symbolise royal clothing and blur for curtains. Black is the last colour used to paint the border. The most important detail of the painting is left till the very end. The eyes.

“It is only when the eyes of the deity are drawn that it is awakened,” said Agarwal. “The artists give ‘life’ to the deity by opening the pupils of the main deity at the centre of the painting.” This is the point when the creation goes beyond being a work of art and becomes a travelling temple.

A phad painting depicting Samudra Manthan.
A phad painting depicting Samudra Manthan.

In his book Nine Lives, author William Dalrymple explores the lives of phad artists and follows a bhopa and bhopi pair to understand the art form. He writes:

“The phad has a teeming energy that seems somehow to tap into the larger-than-life power of the epic’s mythology to produce wonderfully bold and powerful narrative images… The different figures and scenes were not compartmentalised, but were clearly organised with a strict logic. Like the ancient Buddhist paintings in the caves of Ajanta, the story was arranged by geographical rather than narrative logic: more a road map to the epic geography of courtly Rajasthan than a strip cartoon of the story.”

A phad painting.
A phad painting.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Shree Lal Joshi and his sons to popularise phad art, there are less than 10 artists practicing it full-time today. “Most people interested come and learn the art at the school started by Joshi as a hobby,” said Agarwal. “There is very little appreciation for folk art forms in India and as a result, the profession is not a lucrative one.”

A phad painting depicting Lakshmi.
A phad painting depicting Lakshmi.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.