A popular legend among the Suthar community in Rajasthan is about Shravan Kumar, the dutiful son of blind parents mentioned in the epic Ramayana. The story goes that Shravan Kumar was accidentally killed by Ayodhya’s king Dashratha while he was taking his parents on a pilgrimage across the country. The remorseful king asked Shravan what his last wish was. He replied since he could not take his parents on the pilgrimage, he would like the temples to come to them. Thus, was devised the Kavad, a mobile shrine that comes to those who cannot take up pilgrimages.
Portable shrines are seen in many cultures. Greeks and Egyptians had stone or wooden tablets that they could carry with them and use for worship,
India too has varied modes of portable shrines – palanquins, temple chariots, paintings, and stone or wooden tablets. In Rajasthan, the Phad paintings, Kathputli or puppets and Kavad (also Kawad) are ancient styles of portable shrines.
In times of yore, the Kavadiya Bhats, the community of storytellers mainly from Jodhpur, Kishangarh and Nagaur districts, would carry these story boxes wrapped in cloth from village to village where they would narrate stories to villagers for a few hours of entertainment. The art of story-telling is called Kavad Baachan.
The Kavadiyas would recount stories from the epics, the avatars of Vishnu, and Krishna Leela, accounts of local deities and kings, and folk tales, not only regaling the audience but also passing on cultural and religious values to them.
Each panel was painted with a particular sequence of the story. The story would begin from the front panels and proceed to the inner panels. As the Kavadiya opened each panel, the storyline unfolded before an engrossed audience. After opening all the folds, when all the panels were opened, the sanctum would be revealed where the image of the main deity was placed.
As per tradition, the old and broken Kavads were immersed in the holy Pushkar Lake, near Ajmer city, by the Kaavadiya Bhats. This is one of the reasons why Kavads that date back several centuries have not been found.
History of the Kavad
There is no clarity on the origins of the Kavad. Many historians and researchers are of the view that the Kavad tradition in Rajasthan goes back about 500 years.
Traditionally, the Suthar community in Bassi village of Chittorgarh district is the makers of Kavad and the art is also known as Bassi Kashtkala. It is believed that a local ruler Rawat Govind Das brought some Suthar community artisans from Malpura in Tonk district and settled them in Bassi. Later, some of these artisans migrated to Ujjain.
The Suthars are carpenters and they trace their lineage to Vishwakarma – the architect of the gods. Women are also involved in the art. While the men make the Kavads, the women help with making the colours and the painting.
Dwarka Prasad Jangid, a Kavad maker from Bassi village says his family has been making Kavads for the past 500 years. Jangid has been nominated for the national award for 2019 that will be conferred by the President later this month.
He has also won several other awards including the Rajasthan state award in 2008 and the Kalamani award from the Haryana government in 2012.
Satyanarayan Suthar is another award-winning Kavad maker from Bassi village. Suthar says the Marwadi Kavad used to have 51 stories across 16 panels. He won the national award for his Marwadi Kavad in 2014. He was awarded by the state government in 2009.
The word Kavad is derived from Hindi Kivaad which means a wooden door.
Traditionally, a Kavad has a fixed height, a flat roof and a red base colour. The number of panels used depends upon the extent of the story or the number of patrons the storyteller has. It is usually between ten and sixteen.
The panels are opened and moved with the help of hinges. The innermost panels are held by wooden pegs. The Kaavad is usually wrapped in red or white cloth by the storytellers while being carried.
The front panels depict Jai and Vijay, the gatekeepers of the abode of Vishnu. Inside the front door, the left panel shows the Moon God on his chariot and people worshipping Lord Vishnu. The right door shows the Sun God on his chariot and devotees of Vishnu.
The centre panel shows Lord Vishnu reclining on Sheshnag with Goddess Laxmi by his side. Lord Brahma is shown sitting on a lotus flower and devotees of Shiva are shown worshipping the Shivalinga.
Unboxing a story
The process of making a Kavad is time-consuming. Kavad is made from adusa, mango, dhok or ardu trees as their woods are light and the Kavad can be carried easily. Kavads made from teak or Sheesham wood are very expensive.
Kavads can measure from 6 inches to 20 feet. A Kavad has between 8 to 16 panels, depicting different stories. About 10-15 feet of wood is used to make a Kavad, depending on the size. A small truckload of wood costs about Rs12,000, says Suthar.
The wood is first cut into panels as per the size of the Kavad to be made. It is scraped and cracks are filled using a mixture of sawdust and adhesive. Suthar says he sprinkles insecticide powder on the wood to protect it. It is then dried in the sun for 8-10 days.
Jangid says he makes the primer using the leaves of the poplar tree. These are ground thoroughly and mixed with arabica gum to make a paste. Three or four coats are applied to the Kavad.
The base is then painted. Traditionally, the base colour used was bright red but nowadays various colours are used. Earlier the artisan used stone pigment colours, making which were labour-intensive. But these days acrylic and poster colours are used as they are easily available in the market.
After the base is ready, the artist sketches the figures and other details of the story using a fine brush. The figures, clothes and other elements are then painted. After this, fine detailing such as making the facial features or jewellery on the figures is done. The colours are applied in layers to give depth. The final outlining in black brings the figures to life.
The wooden pieces are put together using a drill, nails and hinges. Finally, a coat of varnish is applied to give it a smooth finish and shine, says Jangid.
He made 12-feet Kavad for film actor Amol Palekar who visited him four years back. The actor had got several more Kavads made from Suthar.
Jangid made a Kavad measuring 9 feet for the Rajasthan tableau at the 2014 Republic Day parade. He also made one 25-feet Kavad of goddess Durga during the Navratri in 2016.
Changing stories with changing times
Traditionally, the Kavads used to depict stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharat, saints, local deities and folk tales. The stories were passed on from one generation to another orally.
Jangid made a Kavad depicting the story of a village girl, Meena, who battles the odds to achieve success. Meena lives in a village and her father is not keen on educating her. On the insistence of her teacher, the father enrols her in school. She is a bright student and finishes school and then college with flying colours. She goes to London for higher education but instead of taking up a job there, she returns to her village and sets up a women’s self-help group for women empowerment and provides them with financial security (See video above).
He also made a Kavad depicting the difficulties faced by people during the Covid pandemic and the plight of migrant workers who had to undertake long, arduous journeys on foot to reach back to their villages.
Similarly, other artisans are exploring newer ideas for a more contemporary audience.
In some parts of Mewar, the Kavads were used to tell family stories and the Kavadiya Bhats used to maintain genealogies of their jajmans or patrons who would commission the making of Kavads. This syncretic relationship between the patron, the Suthar and Kavadiya Bhat allowed the art to sustain through generations.
Also Read: Seven wooden toy-making traditions of India
But with the dissolution of princely states and the end of royal patronage, the Kavad tradition too went into decline. The advent of radio, television and social media has further delivered a cruel blow to the artisans.
The high price of raw materials and decline in demand have hit the artisans hard.
The state government could not provide a supportive environment to the artisans to encourage their art. Many of the artisans gave up their traditional vocation and started making more saleable items from wood such as furniture and toys or are working as farm hands and labourers. The ones who ventured out and created a network of buyers managed to survive.
Jangid says there is no fixed income from making Kavads. He has a shop in Bassi but also gets orders online and through sales in exhibitions and earns about Rs30,000 per month.
Suthar concurs. He also owns a shop in Bassi and says sometimes he earns Rs50,000 or Rs1,00,000 in a month and sometimes he earns nothing for two or three months.
He explains the problem concisely. “Most Kavad artisans have given up their family vocation because they cannot sustain themselves,” Suthar says.
The other artisans in his village were dependent on an agent who bought the articles from them and sold them in other cities. “He gave them a fixed sum for each article and they were happy with that. Even if he sold an item for a high price, the money would go to him and not the artist, they were satisfied getting a fixed amount,” he says.
“These are the areas where the governments should support artists. They should provide financial help or loans, train them to use technology and marketing, send them to fairs and exhibitions in India and abroad so they have buyers for their wares and can earn a respectable livelihood,” says Suthar who also owns a shop in Bassi.
The growing e-commerce portals provide some succour to artisans as they are selling Kavads online and helping to promote the art and artists to a global audience. But this is accessible only to those who have the knowhow of technology and marketing.
Both Suthar and Jangid also teach and conduct workshops across India and in a few countries abroad to pass on their ancient knowledge.
Despite the hardships, Suthar still makes only Kavads. “I don’t make do anything else for a living. This is my proud heritage which I am trying to promote and sustain,” he says.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)