Kavad – Colorful Storytelling Box of Rajasthan

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My first rendezvous with Kavad was a few years back at Dastkar fair held at IGNCA in New Delhi. Colorful wooden boxes in bright yellow, red and green colors caught my eye. With 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 actually a shrine, wherein live the stories. Mostly the stories come from epics Ramayan and Mahabharat. Sometimes there are other stories from local folklore like stories of locals saints or heroes. You can also think of it as a moving temple. In Mewar, the home of Kavad, it is primarily used to tell family stories including genealogies.

Kavad - the Storytelling Box from Mewar, Rajasthan
Kavad – the Storytelling Box from Mewar, Rajasthan

Kavad 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 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, a Kavad is a shrine.

Communities

There are three main communities involved in the Kavad 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.

Suthar Community

Suthar community almost exclusively makes Kavads. It is a carpenter community that mostly lives in a village of Bassi on Chittor-Kota road in Mewar region of Rajasthan. It is believed that they were brought here from Nagaur in Shekhawati region by Price Jaimal of Devgarh sometime in 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 the Kavad 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

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 Kavad Katha. It is a way of living for him. What is interesting is the reversal of who visits whom. Most of the times it is the devotees who visit the temple, but with Kavad, it is the deity who come home in the form of Kavad shrine.

Kavadiya Bhats are traditional genealogists who also play the twin role of a storyteller. They tell the family histories through the intricately painted panels of Kavad. 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 village to village telling stories. They sit in front of the audience with their Kavad 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 curiosity is at its peak to collect the donation.

The word Kavad probably comes from Kivaad – a colloquial word for door. Kavad can after-all be seen as a collection of doors or doors that open the layers of a story. In another context, Kavad is also used for ‘carrying on the shoulders’. Remember the Kavadiyas who carry the water of Ganga to their village temples.

Kavad in Modern Times

Kavad Artisan at Dastkar in Delhi
Kavad Artisan at Dastkar in Delhi

After recording the video, when I was talking to the Kavadiya Bhat, he told me that these days they are making Kavads for educational purposes. For example, a box to teach alphabets to the kids. Now, is that not incredible.

Some miniature versions of Kavad are available online.

A Bangalore Mirror article tells me that new age storytellers are designing their own Kavad sets to tell their stories. I thought this concept 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 

27 COMMENTS

  1. An informative and insightful write up that effectively challenges two myths internalized by modern day Indians: (1) India has no sense of history and (2) Indian tradition (parampara) is immune from modernization and innovation. I would also urge readers to read the article from the Banglore Mirror (alluded to in this article) which sheds more light on the Kavad artisans. Finally, it was interesting to learn that Kavad (कावड) means a moving shrine as well as a door ( किवाड/कवाड in Marathi).

  2. What an interesting art form this Kavad – the colorful wooden toy like a box, a moving temple of stories from s Ramayan, Mahabharat or local folklore, thanks to those 3 communities!

  3. What an interesting post! Indian culture is so beautiful to me, and one I can’t wait to experience in person. These Kavad storytelling boxes are so beautiful. What a beautiful way for a person to make a living. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I have to admit, i found this quite interesting to read and another bit of Indian culture I have learnt. The storytelling boxes are beautifully designed and are stunning. Hope to see one for real one day.

  5. This is so beautiful! I have never heard of this before, but would love to have one now. Just another reason why the Indian culture is so special.

  6. I haven’t heard of this before but it’s a beautiful way of telling a story. It definitely has an interesting tradition. Also, they are making educational versions for the kids— I think thats awesome.

  7. What a fascinating storytelling tradition. I love the details and the layers within each of the boxes. The interactive aspect makes it fun for kids and the whole family. Thanks for sharing this slice of Indian culture.

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