Award-winning artist Kalyan Joshi prays over a blank stretch of canvas with a mixture of love, reverence and hope. A young girl of the family then daubs the 30-feet long handloom scroll or phad, with a few brush strokes. Joshi takes over and after one and a half months of painstaking creative labour, the phad or religious scroll will teem with over 2,000 finely etched figures from the life story of the main deity who is the focus of the scroll painting. When the eyes of the central sacred figure are painted, the scroll will come alive and be imbued with divinity. Only then, will Joshi lay down his brush.
Phad painting, which was a dying folk art form, is now seeing a timorous revival. This art form originated in the former princely state of Shahpura, Bhilwara, Rajasthan, and the Joshi family are its original custodians. Indeed, Kalyan Joshi traces his lineage to phad painters going back to the 13th century.
“Today, only around 18 artists from the Joshi family are full-time phad artists, and 50 students of the Chitrashala (Phad Painting Training and Research Institute), are practising this art form,” says Joshi. (The school was set up in the ’60s by Shree Lal Joshi, Kalyan Joshi’s father and a Padma Shree recipient.)
Till a little over 60 years ago, the art of phad was a closely guarded secret of artists in the Joshi family that had once shielded the techniques of these extraordinary colourful scrolls, from the prying eyes of the world. The family is now trying to pull this art form back from the brink of extinction.
Indeed, their efforts have borne fruit for Joshi recently led a team of 15 artists from Bhilwara to create a 75 x 9 feet phad artwork, which now adorns the new Parliament building in New Delhi. They laboured for three months to create the opus on the theme of democracy. The building showcases antique phad paintings in its interiors as well.
As interest in India’s traditional folk art forms wanes, Joshi and his brother Gopal are also adapting the art form to suit modern day needs in home décor. They are creating smaller paintings and using more contemporary themes like wedding processions and hunting scenes. They are even creating canvasses that pivot around social messages regarding climate change, water conservation, etc. But they emphasise that they do not compromise on the age-old techniques.
Joshi started honing his artistic skills when he was just eight years old. Today, the master artist has held numerous exhibitions abroad and over 200 workshops all over India. He even conducts Maestro courses on a one-of-a-kind art app called Rooftop, which makes Indian art accessible to art lovers, enthusiasts and even the art-agnostic across the globe.
For over 700 years, these religious scrolls or phads have served as mobile temples for the nomadic Rabari tribe, essentially camel herders who trudged across the trackless deserts of Rajasthan by day and stopped in the villages at night.
The bards (called bhopa and bhopi) commissioned the paintings and then wandered along with their vivid art works from village to village, singing and dancing and bringing to life stories of a brave local chieftain Pabuji, and of Dev Narayan, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In the process, they developed a visual storytelling technique that fostered community spirit and enthralled and engaged their viewers. (Later, phad paintings included tales from the Ramayana, Tulsidas’ Hanuman Chalisa, a devotional hymn in praise of Lord Hanuman, and other mythological traditions.)
The bhopa functioned as an exorcist, too, and would purge illness from livestock and villagers afflicted with evil spirits that had invaded and taken possession of their bodies. Acts of penance would be shared with the family to protect them from the slings and arrows of misfortune. At night, the performance would begin; the balladeers would sing about the shining deeds of the folk deities, their voices piercing the silence of the desert. Their scrolls dense with colour and symbolism would light up the clotted darkness of the night with magic even as the desert wind whistled and hooted over shifting sand dunes.
Kalyan Joshi and his brother Gopal are creating smaller paintings and using more contemporary themes like wedding processions, hunting scenes and are even creating canvasses that pivot around social messages regarding climate change and water conservation
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We met Parveen Joshi, Kalyan Joshi’s brother, at the history-webbed Shahpura Bagh, a luxe homestay in Shahpura, a town where the royal and the rural have been in lockstep for centuries. We sat near the pool with its array of white-curtain-draped pavilions, and the paintings that Parveen unscrolled dazzled as much as the sun that glinted off the blue waters in the pool. Dense with luminescent detail and vibrant with natural colours extracted from stones, herbs and flowers mixed with gum and water, the phad is done on handwoven cloth, Parveen explained. The phad handloom cloth is soaked overnight to thicken the threads and then starched to get a smooth surface. It is subsequently dried in the sun and rubbed with moonstone for a smooth finish.
The scrolls that Parveen unfurled were peopled with figures clad in traditional garb and headgear and the canvasses had the stamp of traditional vocabulary. Indeed, the 30-feet-long and 5-feet-wide phads can teem with 2,000 figures while the 20-feet ones may showcase up to 800—each one etched in exquisite detail, Parveen explains. The scrolls are large enough to accommodate the various episodes in the life of the deities and the figures face each other to create an impression of interaction and movement. (Prices may vary from ₹75,000 for a traditional phad to ₹2 lakh to ₹3 lakh and more, depending on the size of the canvas and the work that has gone into creating it. Smaller contemporary artworks, but done in the traditional style, can go for as little as ₹3,000.)
The scrolls, according to tradition, glow with rich hues of orange, yellow, green, brown and red. Yellow is used for the ornaments and clothing, whereas orange is the favoured hue for the limbs and torso. Green is evocative of nature and brown for architectural elements while red is suggestive of royalty and is used to paint thick borders. Women generally paint the borders but not the main artwork.
As we sat at Shahpura Bagh, listening to Parveen’s narration and gazing at the phads that he unrolled, images from the past invaded our mind’s eye—of dusk cloaking a village square, while children sat in a semi-circle, eyes alight like fireflies on a dark night. The men and women of the village sat behind them forming a protective human barrier against the unseen forces of the night. The performance was about to begin and excitement rippled across the audience like waves in a limpid lake. The strains of the ravanhatta, a two-string Rajasthani instrument, rose on the soft evening air like the sweet lament of a jilted lover.
After cleaning and sanctifying a space, the priest-singer and his wife unravelled a 30-feet-long and 5-feet-wide scroll painting, fixed it to a bamboo frame and lit an oil lamp to light up the canvas.
The veiled woman then began to sing and dance while the man narrated mythological stories of their local deities. The rivetted audience would occasionally clap and voice its appreciation to encourage the performers to amp up the drama. As dawn lit the skies above in fiery colours, silence would fall like a curtain after a stirring theatre performance, and the sacred recital would be wrapped up with an aarti. The villagers would retire to their homes, energised and spiritually uplifted.
(Gustasp and Jeroo Irani are a Mumbai-based, husband-and-wife team of travel writers and photographers. Authors of two guide books, they have been trawling the planet and India for the last three decades in search of the off-grid and unusual)