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.
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.