It is an artist’s creation, a storyteller’s medium and a believer’s shrine. Few crafts in India are as unique and layered with stories as is Kavad. Commonly described as a ‘portable shrine’, Kavad is a wooden ‘box’ or ‘cabinet’ with many folding doors, each of which is vividly painted with depictions of deities, stories of myths and legends, and tales from the epics. For centuries, traditional storytellers in Rajasthan have used the Kavad to narrate religious stories and legends and take them to people’s homes. A gallery of art in itself, a Kavad is a fascinating blend of carpentry, painting, storytelling and, of course, faith.
Kavad was originally practised only in the remote village of Bassi in the Chittorgarh district of Rajasthan, where it has thrived for five centuries. Although not much is known about when and how it originated, local artisans say the art of painting and depicting stories on Kavad dates back to the 7th century CE, when King Harsha (r. 606 – 647 CE) ruled parts of North and North-Western India. But there is no evidence to corroborate this. Many believe that the art of Kavad is around 500 years old.
Portable shrines are an ancient tradition. There is evidence to show that the Egyptians and the Greeks used tablets or stelas of stone or wood as portable shrines, some dating back to around 2000 BCE. The idea of portable shrines was that devout travellers could carry their shrines with them while on the move. They were used for the daily worship of regular folk who were on the move, or by monks, mendicants and priests who begged for alms as they travelled.
– These shrines were usually small, like ritual objects, and had movable parts that could be folded and easily transported.
Often, they were artistically decorated. Indian art too is replete with depictions of deities, palanquins and temple chariots that moved around, as in processions, for darshan and to be worshipped as icons.
In Rajasthan, crafts like Pabuji ki Phad, paintings dedicated to the folk deity Pabuji, Kathputli or puppets, and Kavad are used as portable shrines or as objects of storytelling, that narrate legends and tales of deities, epics and local legends. It is believed that artisans started making these wooden shrines as a sturdy alternative to cloth paintings.
The word ‘kavad’ is said to be derived from the Hindi ‘kivaad’, which means a ‘wooden door’, and the art of making it is the preserve of the Suthar community in Bassi village in Rajasthan. The Suthars are carpenters and painters, and they craft these beautiful wooden structures as well. But the actual storytellers are from the Kavadia Bhatt community, or sometimes even priests who carry these Kavads with them to tell their tales.
This practice of storytelling by Kavadias is known as Kavad Bachana. The Kavadias believe they are descendants of Lord Vishwakarma, the divine architect of the universe and supreme God of the Arts.
How The Story Unfolds
A Kavad is a wooden cabinet that has 10-20 painted panels which depict different stories. As he narrates the story, the Kavadia starts unfolding the front panels and proceeds gradually to the innermost ones. At the end of the tale, he opens the final panel, offering his audience a darshan, or glimpse, of the deity represented on it. On the top of this temple-like structure, one can usually see the brightly painted face of either the Sun God (Surya) or a local king or patron, which is larger than the other images painted on the Kavad. The front panels are sometimes even painted with dwarapalas or doorkeepers.
The patrons or listeners are often called ‘jajmans’.
– Kavadias carry these portable shrines to the homes of jajmans, in a way bringing the temple to the devotee.
Since the jajmans consider the Kavad a sacred shrine, there are certain rituals to be observed, including donations to the storyteller. It is also believed that listening to these religious stories while watching the painted pictures purifies one’s soul. Kavadias travel in troupes across villages in Rajasthan, telling their stories. Sometimes, they are specially invited into people’s homes.
Making The Kavad
The process of making a Kavad is tedious, and a single Kavad can take more than a week to fashion. Kavads range in size from as small as 10 cm to 3 feet tall. The basic wooden structure of the Kavad is usually made of wood from a local tree, adusaor from mango, sheesham, semal, and sometimes even the sweet neem tree.
The process starts with a suthar cutting pieces of wood and shaping them into the panels and other parts that make up the Kavad, with simple tools like a saw. These pieces are coated with khadia, a local white chalk powder, which gives the wood a white colour.
The panels are then painted and decorated. A Kavad is characterised by the use of bright colours. Earlier, red was used as the base colour, on top of which different colours were used, but nowadays, Kavads come in a variety of colours. Traditionally, natural colours were used to paint them, but now mineral pigments are used.
The artist or chitrakaar first outlines the figures and elements on the painted wooden base, using a fine brush. They are then painted, which is followed by fine, detailing. Once painted, these wooden pieces are assembled using drills, nails and hinges. Finally, a coat of varnish is applied to the Kavad, which gives it a lively sheen.
Traditionally, Kavads used to depict episodes from the lives of Ram, Vishnu and Krishna; themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, or tales of local deities like Pabuji, Bhomiyaji and Tejaji. Today, social issues, stories for children, stories with relevant messages or educational values have also found a place on Kavads, which therefore are no longer exclusively mobile shrines. They are also used as decor pieces in urban areas.
But just like many other crafts across India, Kavad too faces an uncertain future. The unavailability of quality wood and the high price of raw materials, along with a decline in demand are major challenges for the artisans. As for the storytellers, television and other forms of media have grabbed the attention of people, who are shedding tradition in favour of technology. Sadly, even in rural India, people are no longer interested in this unique art of storytelling.
Since earning a livelihood from Kavad is becoming increasingly difficult, the younger generation is switching to other professions. And while crafts organisations like Dastkari Haat Samiti are attempting to popularise this craft through fairs and exhibitions, there’s still a lot to be done to preserve this beautiful legacy.
Digital platform Peepul Tree, which works closely with artisans from across India, is promoting Kavad and taking it to a global market, through its e-commerce portal. At Peepul Tree, you can find exquisite Kavads crafted by Dwarka Prasad Jangid of Bassi, who has been practicing the art of Kavad for years, following a family tradition. Kavad is truly an extraordinary craft, preserving stories and legacies. Hopefully, its own story will have a happy ending.