An anonymous source tells us, “Words don’t match the pride and the glory that this place of Rajasthan holds.”
This statement holds true to the glory of all aspects –– literature, food, language, music, and more. Its art, as wondrous as ever, explores many more aspects beyond self-expression as an outlet for creativity. Of course, its cultural past has a lot to do with its intricacies, but there is one form that is centuries old, and is struggling to remain alive.
Phad painting is a 700-year-old art form done on scrolls that are meant to narrate religious tales of higher powers of gods and deities. The Rabari tribe’s priests (also singers), Bhopas and Bhopis, usually married couples, would carry these scroll paintings around and would perform the prayers in song for Devnarayanji and Pabuji. The Bhopi would shine a lamp light on parts of the Phad art as the Bhoi would sing them.
The scrolls would be unfolded post-sunset, and the performances would go on till late in the night. This may also draw the conclusion of the art form’s name, as Phad refers to ‘fold’ in the local dialect. This practice made the Phad art a form of a mobile temple.
Phad paintings may seem slightly tough and hard, but they start off on the soft surface of hand-woven cotton cloths. Rice or wheat starch is then used to stiffen it, after which it is allowed to dry in the sun. Finally, a moonstone is used to smoothen it and give it a slight shine. While the surface is all-natural, so are the paints used. They are derived from plants, flowers, herbs, and stones and then mixed with water and gum. The painting is considered complete when the artist paints on the eyes –– it signifies the coming alive of the painting.
Earlier, phad paintings were only done by the Joshi family of the Chipa caste. There was strong gatekeeping that took place, as even women who left the family after marriage were not allowed to partake in the art form. Indeed, this led to the decline of phad, but Padma Shri awardee Shree Lal Ji Joshi set up Joshi Kala Kunj in Bhilwara in 1960. 30 years later, it was rebranded as Chitrashala. Joshi’s sons Gopal and Kalyan Joshi helped train people from outside the Joshi family and made concerted efforts to revive the art form that was on the verge of extinction, simply due to such stringent and orthodox beliefs.
Another welcome change was the introduction of other deities and mythological stories (previously only Devnarayanji and Pabuji) such as the Ramayan and Mahabharat and later also Panchatantra! Thanks to Joshi’s best efforts Phad artists in India are in the double digits.
Attempts to keep phad alive are ongoing and as strong as ever. This beautiful Rajasthani gem deserves a stage bigger than the one it stands on now. The region’s culture and heritage are held in a span of a few inches of the cloth that phad is painted on. An entire cultural identity exists within those sheets, and it would be a shame if the 700-year old art form were to be forgotten.
Find Kalyan Joshi here.
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