My first rendezvous with Kavad was a few years back at the Dastkar fair held at IGNCA in New Delhi. Colorful wooden boxes in bright yellow, red, and green colors caught my eye. With the camera in my hand, I went closer to the stall to take pictures. This is when I started talking to the artist who uses it to tell stories. A small compact box opens in many layers, in a fascinating manner as the story unfolds. I tried opening one box and was completely lost in the way it opens. He smiled and said – It seems simple, but it takes some familiarity to understand it.
What is Kavad?
Kavad – the colorful wooden toy like a box- is a shrine, wherein the stories live. Mostly the stories come from the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat. Sometimes there are other stories from local folklore like stories of local saints or heroes. You can also think of it as a moving temple. In Mewar, the home of the tradition, it is primarily used to tell family stories including genealogies.
It has several wooden panels hinged together, painted with scenes from the stories. Outermost panels usually have the guardians of the story painted on them. The story I heard has Jay and Vijay painted on it. The storyteller opens each panel and tells the story depicted there. After opening and closing all the folds, finally when all the panels are open, reveals the sanctum – where the image of the main deity is placed. It is like an audio-visual journey from the outside to the inner world. You can also read it as a journey from outside the temple to its sanctum or Garbha Griha. After all, it is a shrine.
There are three main communities involved in the tradition. First is the Suthar community that makes these colorful wooden boxes or Kavads. Second is the Kavadiya Bhat who uses it to tell stories. The third is the Jajman or patrons who commission as well as consume these stories.
We know that this tradition has existed for at least 400 years. I feel it must be much older, it is just that it got documented around 400 years back.
The Suthar community almost exclusively makes Kavads. It is a carpenter community that mostly lives in the village of Bassi on the Chittor-Kota road in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. It is believed that they were brought here from Nagaur in the Shekhawati region by Price Jaimal of Devgarh sometime in the 16th CE. Suthars are also called Basayatis – a name I assume derived from the name of the village – Bassi. These artisans trace their own lineage from Vishwakarma – the cosmic architect. Remember Vishwakarma not just created the universe but also the golden city of Dwarka for Sri Krishna.
Suthars make them using wood from the Neem tree. Red was the traditional color used, but over time they are made in other colors as in demand from the customers.
Kavadiya Bhat, the storyteller takes the temple to the Jajman or patron’s house, tells stories, and collects his Dakshina or fees. The tradition is called Kavad Banchana or Katha. It is a way of living for him. What is interesting is the reversal of who visits whom. Most of the time it is the devotees who visit the temple, but with this, it is the deity who comes home in the form of the Kavad shrine.
Kavadiya Bhats are traditional genealogists who also play the twin role of a storyteller. They tell the family histories through intricately painted panels. The patrons, a primary source of income, are inherited by the Kavadiya Bhats. What a beautiful way of preserving personal histories and also letting someone earn their livelihood through this. As I was reading about them I realized we had such impeccable records keeping systems at every village level. Wonder why and when we lost them.
Kavadiya Bhats also travel from village to village telling stories. They sit in front of the audience and tell the story. In between, they would open a flap beneath the story panels and collect donations. Smart ones would stop at the logical points when the audience’s curiosity is at its peak to collect the donation.
The word Kavad probably comes from Kivaad – a colloquial word for door. It can after all be seen as a collection of doors or doors that open the layers of a story. In another context, it is also used for ‘carrying on the shoulders’. Remember the Kavadiyas who carry the water of the Ganga to their village temples.
Kavad in Modern Times
After recording the video, when I was talking to the Kavadiya Bhat, he told me that these days they are making them for educational purposes – for example, a box to teach the alphabet to the kids. Now, is that not incredible?
Some miniature versions are available online.
A Bangalore Mirror article tells me that new-age storytellers are designing their own sets to tell their stories. I thought this concept of telling stories using Kabir poetry is great.
Thank God, this art form is still living in Rajasthan and adapting itself to the new subjects and new Jajmans.
Ref – IITB Article