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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”