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Drenched in tradition and history, India’s varied folk art forms have narrated stories for centuries through vibrant visual representation. And while each one is culturally significant, Phad painting of Rajasthan particularly stands out for its unique history, origin, and the efforts put into its revival.
The Origin of Phad - A Blend of Performance and Visual Art
A 700-year-old legacy passed down over generations within a single family, Phad finds its origins in Shahpura, near Bhilwara, Rajasthan. Phad is a type of scroll painting that narrates elaborate religious stories of local deities and gods. Created as travelling or mobile temples, these traditional paintings were carried by priest-singers of the Rabari tribe, called Bhopas and Bhopis, who would sing and perform stories of their local deities - Devnarayanji (a reincarnation of Vishnu) and Pabuji (a local hero). The Phad painting would be unrolled, or unfolded after sunset, and the performance in front of village members, would last into the night. This is perhaps why the paintings are called ‘Phad’, which means ‘fold’ in the local dialect.
Phad Painting depicting the story of "Pabuji Ki Vivaah"
While the male priest (Bhopa) would sing and narrate the story depicted in the Phad painting, his wife (Bhopi) would accompany through song and dance, while also putting a spotlight on the corresponding section in the painting, using a lamp. A two-string instrument called the ‘ravanhatta’ would be used in the performance.
What adds to the uniqueness of Phad art, is that historically, it was only members of the Joshi family, belonging to the Chipa caste, that created these paintings. The Bhopas (priests) would commission the Joshis to make a Phad to use in their performances. The traditional paintings used to be large, with “Pabuji ki phad”, or Phad paintings of Pabuji being 13 armlengths long, and those of Devnarayan being nearly 30 feet long.
Today, while the storytelling tradition of the Bhopas is still alive in some villages, the significance of Phad paintings has moved much beyond, with efforts made by several members of the Joshi family, including Shree Lal Joshi, Nand Kishor Joshi, Shanti Lal Joshi, Kalyan Joshi, Gopal Joshi, Prakash Joshi, and Vijay Joshi, to increase appreciation for Phad as an art form.
Kalyan Joshi working on a Phad Painting; Image Source: The Hindu
Of Technique, Colours and Characteristics
Phad artists need to be extremely skilled, adhering to techniques taught by ancestors. Depending on the complexity, it can take between a few weeks to a few months to complete an artwork.
Phad paintings are created on hand-woven coarse cotton cloth, which is soaked overnight to thicken the threads. It is then stiffened with starch from rice or wheat flour, stretched, dried in the sun and rubbed with a moonstone to smoothen the surface and give it a sheen. The entire process of making a Phad painting is completely natural, with the use of natural fibres, and natural paints sourced from stones, flowers, plants and herbs. The paints are handmade by the artists, and mixed with gum and water before applying to cloth.
Typical colours seen in a Phad painting are yellow, orange, green, brown, red, blue and black. Each colour is used for specific purposes – yellow for creating the initial outline and in ornaments and clothing, orange for limbs and the torso, green for trees and vegetation, brown for architectural structures, red for royal clothing and flags as well as a thick border, and blue for water or curtains. Black is applied at the end as outlines.
An artist creating a Phad painting; Image Source: Avinash Maurya
The most important detail in the paintings is added last – the eyes. Once the main deity’s eyes are painted, the artwork comes alive, and is ready for worship. After this, the artist cannot sit on the artwork (which they would otherwise do, owing to the size of the paintings). The artist signs the artwork close to the image of the main deity, which is typically placed in the centre of the painting.
While figures are harmoniously distributed throughout the canvas in a Phad painting, the scale of each figure is determined by their social status, and the role they play in the story that is being narrated. A unique aspect of Phad paintings is that the construction of the figures is flat, and they all face each other, instead of facing the audience (viewer) of the painting.
Traditions of the Past
The entire process of creating a Phad painting is steeped in rituals and traditions. In the olden days, the first brush stroke was made by a virgin girl from the artist’s family, following which the painter divided the canvas into various sections, according to the parts of the story being depicted. The techniques of Phad painting were only taught to those who’d remain in the Joshi family, not those who would leave it. So, while daughters were not taught the art, daughters-in-law who became part of the family were.
Shri Lal Joshi teaching the art of Phad; Image Source: Correct Report
Revival, Survival and Change in Modern Times
Since the tradition of Phad art was so closely guarded, it was natural for the artform to face the threat of fading away. With a desire to preserve and revive the artform, Shree Lal Ji Joshi, a renowned Phad painter and Padma Shri awardee, challenged all the orthodox ideas associated with the Phad tradition, and decided to set up Joshi Kala Kunj in Bhilwara, Rajasthan in 1960 - a school where artists from outside the Joshi family were taught the art of Phad. Under the patronage of his sons, Gopal and Kalyan Joshi, this revival effort expanded, with the rebranding of the school to Chitrashala, in 1990. Over the years, more than 3,000 artists have been trained at Chitrashala. Similar efforts were also made by other members of the extended Joshi family. Not only did all these revival effort focus on preserving the artform, but also the painstaking processes of making natural paints and following traditional techniques.
Since the very core of Phad paintings was storytelling, Kalyanji Joshi started depicting characters besides Devnarayanji and Pabuji in Phad paintings. Stories and characters from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hanuman Chalisa and even the Panchatantra, were introduced, making the paintings more appealing to a larger audience.
Artists from Chitrashala started adding their own unique style to the tradition and were encouraged to do so. Keeping up with the demands and limitations of space in modern homes, the size of Phad paintings was reduced significantly, and today, they are made as small as 2, 4, or 6 feet. Since the original paintings consisted of several individual stories or episodes that made up the entire tale, Kalyan Joshi spurred the innovation of painting just one of the mini-stories in smaller Phad paintings. He also introduced written text in the artworks, which wasn’t seen in traditional Phad paintings.
Attempts by different members of the Joshi family, as well as other renowned Phad artists such as Pradeep Mukherjee, have helped sustain and revive this incredible artform to some extent, enhancing its commercial value, and generating employment for Phad artists. But despite these efforts, there are less than twenty artists who practice the art of Phad painting full time today.
In the modern world, there is a need to promote such rich artistic traditions from the past. Their visual appeal aside, art forms like Phad preserve folklore and stories that have travelled through centuries and reflect India’s glorious culture.
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