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Updated: November 28, 2013 15:50 IST

An ancient art of story-telling

Ranee Kumar
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A closer look at the art work of Kaawad.
A closer look at the art work of Kaawad.

The little-known art form from Rajasthan ‘Kaawad bachana’ is an amazing blend of picture painting, singing and narration of mystical tales.

What a paradox it is in the face of reality shows and daily soaps that have invaded our homes, making traditional art forms like drama, Hari Katha more or less redundant; there is yet another belt in this very land of ours, which lives by its ancient culture alone! If India has an identity to boast of, well, it is the sand dunes of Rajasthan where antique crafts, culture and colours call for attention and appreciation.

Totally oblivious to the humungous wave of globalisation that has devoured our urban, and to an extent rural, civilisation, the ‘Kaawad’ a portable sanctum, makes its way through the villages of Jodhpur district entertaining people with its story-tellers.

What is the Kaawad?

The quaint Kaawad resembles a temple structure carved out of wood with many apertures that open like the doors of a temple and get neatly folded up within the layers of one another. The vintage shrine is painted in bright colours with mythological characters that tell a story within the pictures as each door is unfastened. Atop this temple like structure — which also looks like an almirah for those of us who have no inkling of this curio — is placed a painted face of either the Sun god (Surya) or the patron (a landlord or rajah) which is really big when compared to the other pictures painted on the Kaawad. The doors are supposed to lead to chambers of the sanctum and there can be any number of them from ten to 20. The Kaawad can be anywhere around one foot to three feet and is carried around by mobile narrators called Kaawadiya.

Part of legacy

“We acquire the skill to present the story tuned to folk raga as a parampara (legacy). We are poor people who earn a living by this and since this doesn’t suffice, we work on our land to make both ends meet,” says Pappu Ram who has just returned from a ‘Kaawad bachana’ (Vachan or story-telling through Kaawad).

How does he tell the story and are there listeners around in these days of television and laptops?

“We are nomadic and the entire family moves into a village where we stay for two to three weeks, sometimes a month, giving performances at nearby villages. We are a troupe of four Kaawadiyas. We narrate the story of Pandavas, Ramayana, the story of mother goddess, story of Thakurji (Krishna), our local deity Bhomiyaji Maharaj and so on. It is mandatory that our opening statement reveal our genealogy and then we launch into the narration which takes hours. Each door of the Kaawad is opened to the audience and the story told as per the scenes on that door. The narration is continued by my teammate just in case I get exhausted. We go from door to door and since we are expected, donation in kind or cash flows as a matter of fact. We don’t beg; we showcase our ancestral art form. The earnings from Kaawad bachana is meager though at times, the chief patron of the area is generous with a lumpsum,” explains an enthusiastic Pappu Ram, of Bhopalgarh hamlet in Jodhpur.

Parents’ curse

Speaking for his clan which is referred to as ‘Kaawadiya Bhat’, Pappu Ram traces the Kaawadiya ancestry to the mythological character ‘Shravan’ a young boy with blind parents who is accidentally killed by King Dasaratha’s (Ramayana) arrow while he was carrying his parents in a ‘kaawadi’ strung to his shoulder. A curse by the parents who have lost their only support of a son, results in Dasaratha’s separation from his own son Rama. “We are the descendants of Shravan,” he concludes.

Narsi Ram, another Kaawad Bhat says, “We are touring troupes who go out of our native village taking the Kaawad along with us to whoever invites us. Generally we camp at a village and begin story-telling tuned to different raag (folk), collect our earnings and get back. Since we travel by foot, each visit takes a month. And in a year, we are bound to travel two to three times. We begin with an elaboration of the raag, then read our ancestry and dedicate the programme to our hereditary patron, the ‘jajmaan’ and then read the Kaawad. Originally this tradition of story-telling through interpretation of the pictures was on a cloth. Since the cloth paintings get worn and torn with inclement weather conditions, our forefathers shifted to wooden shrines. Carrying these can be irksome but then we get used to the inconvenience. At times we buy the shrines on order from the Suthar but generally they are gifted to us by people,” he details humbly.

Since the Kaavadiyas (storytellers) and their jajmans (hereditary patrons) consider the Kaavad as a sacred shrine, certain rituals are mandatory including donations for the livelihood of the narrator. Essentially a rustic tradition, there is a belief that listening to the stories, while watching the painted pictures purifies the soul and cleanses one of impure thoughts. A synergy exists between the Kaawad maker, the Kaawadiya and the patron which has kept the tradition alive.

The Kaavadiya is nearly a 400 year-old- rustic art form which, like several other oral traditions traces its origin to mythology, Despite the invasion of television into rural homes and computer literacy at the doorstep even at village level, the Kaawad culture is popular still both with the audience as well as the performer. “Though our children are getting educated, we will not give up on this ancient divine art form,” says Pappu Ram with conviction. Here is a confluence of aesthetics of picture painting, singing and narration making for a wholesome treat.

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