Much before cinema and animations, storytelling was in such forms that would bring the storyteller and listener together in their mesmerizing worlds of mythical heroes and gods. The Kaavad was one such method of storytelling. The Kaavad is a portable wooden shrine with many hinged wooden panels, which can be opened up to reveal visuals of Gods, goddesses, saints, local heroes and the patrons. It is crafted by the Suthar community of Mewar and narrated by the KaavaDiya Bhats. This fascinating storytelling device from Rajasthan is also considered sacred and is of religious importance.
Kaavad is a sublime storytelling device. The many doors reveal visuals of elaborate tales and epics, set out into the audience by storyteller’s narration. It is a primary occupation of the “Kaavadiya- clan, they have absorbed the stories about the ancestors of several clans and these clans are the patrons of Kaavadiya. A Kaavadiya will visit house to house, village to village narrating the stories which he has inherited from his father about the regional legends and ancestors, the stories stemming from religion are also narrated. When old folks, who cannot visit holy shrines and witness the diety in a temple, the temple itself comes to them in the form of Kaavad, they listen to the stories narrated by Kaavadiya and experience the temple ceremony in their own home. These days, Kaavad is also used as an innovative device for educating children, utilizing this craft’s interactive ability.
If information has to be passed on, so that it remains fresh in receiver’s mind, it has to be in the form of a story. Whether it is a story of Krishna guiding Arjuna or the principle of worshipping Ganesha before starting anything, from the apple that fell on Newton’s head, to the tortoise that gave a lesson of perseverance to the rabbit; the information that we carry in our minds, about past occurrences or about remote history has all been given to us in the form of stories; a learning, a lesson, a note about ones culture, all comes bundled into the stories and somewhere in the region which has seen more legends and warriors than any other land, we find a vivid art of storytelling. The “Kaavad” of Bassi village in Rajasthan has been entrusted with responsibility of spreading the tales of lords and ancestors among everyone.
‘Kaavad Baanchna’, literally ‘reading Kaavad’, is a thriving oral tradition of storytelling in Rajasthan. The stories are of religious importance and also about the patrons of the storytellers and the craft. The stories stem from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, along with stories from the Puranas, caste genealogies and stories from the folk tradition.
This strong foundation of storytelling is also used to invoke the feeling of a sacred space or a shrine, where the temple comes to the devotee. It is believed that listening to stories purifies the soul and reserves a place of entry for the devotee in heaven.
The Kaavad tradition and its survival works on the strong interdependency of the maker, storyteller and patron. The Suthar community and the Kaavadiyas have been involved in Kaavad making and storytelling for generations and carry a vast repository of stories with them. The patrons derive their identity from the Kaavad recitation where their genealogies are recited by the storyteller. It lends an identity to everyone who is a part of it and conserves history and communal integrity.
The Suthars (carpenters) who make the Kaavad shrines believe themselves to be descendents of Viswakarma, the chief architect of the universe according to Hindu traditional belief. Viswakarma was believed to be the younger brother of Brahma, the creator, and was frequently called upon by the Gods for building their abodes. The Gods were pleased with his work and sent him gifts of emeralds, gold and cattle. Unfortunately, it reached his home when he was away and his wife would not accept them in his absence. The wife of a merchant or Baniya in the neighbourhood invited them over and accepted the gifts meant for Viwsakarma. And so, say the Suthars, that this is how they lost all their wealth to the Baniyas.
Baniya is the modern trading and business community of Rajasthan.
Another famous story says that when Shravan kumar was taking his blind parents on a pilgrimage, Raja Dashrath accidentally killed him during hunting. The extremely apologetic and crestfallen Raja asked Shravan what his last wish was. The dying Shravan said that since he cannot take his parents to the pilgrimage, he would like the temple to come to them. And thus Kaavad was devised as a method to reach god for those who cannot take up pilgrimages.
As per the ritual, the worn out or broken Kaavads were immersed in Pushkar Lake by Kaavadiya bhats. Hence, Kaavads dating back to several centuries cannot be found. Looking at the bloodline of the Kaavad makers, we can say that the Kaavad tradition is approximately 400 years old. Due to its association with mythological tales, its exact origins are difficult to chart. Many surviving Kaavad shrines feature images of Bhakti saints as well as Lords Ram and Krishna, so it is assumed to also have come into prominence after the Bhakthi movement.
It finds indirect mentions in religious texts like Kaavad in Tarikh-i-Firoz-Shahi of Afif, where it is referred to as a ‘Muhrik’ – a wooden tablet covered with paintings within and without.
A Kaavad has a fixed height, flat roof and a red base colour. The number of panels used depends upon the extent of the story or the number of patrons the storyteller has. It mostly varies from ten to sixteen.
Visuals of the mythological stories and stories of the patrons are painted onto the panels. The concept of the design is based on the Hindu temple or shrine. The entrances and the sanctum sanctorum are its essential features. The panels are opened up or moved aside with the help of the hinges they are fastened with. The ones closest to the core are held by wooden pegs. The Kaavad is usually wrapped in red or white cloth by the storytellers while being carried around.
The many narrative depictions on the panels of the Kaavad are as follows:
Jai and Vijay, the Gatekeepers of the abode of Vishnu who took incarnation as Nal and Neel to help Lord Rama.
Inside front door:
i. Moon god on his Deer chariot.
ii. Sage and people worshipping Lord Vishnu.
i. Sun God on his horse driven chariot.
ii. Sage devotees of Vishnu.
i. Lord Vishnu is lying sideways on Sheshnag and Goddess Laxmi is sitting near his feet and Brahma is sitting on Lotus flower.
ii. People (devotees) of Shiva are worshipping Shiva Lingum.
Parts of the Ramayana depicted as Kaavad stories:
i. Elephant is trying to wake up Demon Kumbh-Karna, who is Ravana’s brother.
iii. Hanuman at Ashok Vatika in Lanka approaching Sita.
iv. Rama and Lakshmana fighting with Demon Ravana.
v. Marriage ceremony of Rama and Sita.
vi. King Dashrath (Father of Lord Rama) with his three Queens giving order to Rama to go on an exile for 14 years in jungle.
vii. Sage Vishwamitra is performing a Yagya and Rama & Laxmana are killing demons, who were interrupting the yagya.
viii. Swarn-Pankha (Golden feathers) was the name of the sister of Ravana and she was immensely beautiful. She is approaching Rama and Lakshmana to seduce them.
Other stories depicted in Kaavad
1. Goddess Bhawani is the donor of everything; Lord Ganesha stays in front of Bhavani. All five lords (Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth) and Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh save humanity.
2. Story of Mirabai and Ranaji.
3. Five Pandvas and Kunti, Draupadi.
4. Story of King Mordhwaj.
5. Krishna in his playful mode on and around the Banyan tree.
6. Krishna had stolen butter from the cottage of Chanravati Gurjar.
7. Because of belief in god, Dhanaram got diamond crops at his farmland.
8. Kubaram donated earthen pots filled with water.
9. Ravidas donated shoes to devotees of the god.
10. Kabir donated shawl to god.
11. Ganika (the courtesan) is teaching names of god to a parrot and for that pious work, all her evil deeds were forgiven and she attained salvation.
12. Sanji barber shaved king’s beard.
13. Bhati Bhairar Singh donated camel carriage to devotees of God so his name is famous everywhere.
14. Story of Anand Ram taking rice of Nani bai.
15. Krishna is stealing clothes of village girls (Gopis).
16. Story of Ganesha.
17. Shiria Dei, Bhakta Prahlad, Kitten had belief in God and God saved them from injustice.
18. Meera meets Krishna.
19. Darshan (pilgrimage) of Badri Nath temple in Himalaya.
20. King Bhagirath brought sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth.
21. Prahlad is saved by god in furious fire of Holika.
22. Dungarpuri is famous devotee of god in Chautan (Rajasthan).
23. Hanuman searched for Sitaji in Ashok vatika at Lanka.
24. Rama Lakshman killed Ravana.
25. Poliya pohal, Dhiraj Singh, Nath’s Chauki.
26. Story of Vishnu and Lakshmi.
27. Story of Chandra (Moon), Indra, Sage Gautam, Ahilya, Aanjani and Birth of Hanuman.
28. Shabri is feeding Lord Rama with plums.
29. Rama Lakshman are hunting Golden deer.
30. Story of Ramdev, Har Ji Bhati Sugna Bai.
31. Ravana is kidnapping Sita, taking the form of a beggar.
32. Meeting of Garuda with Hanuman.
33. Story of Shanidev, Wooden peacock eats Diamond because of Bad luck.
34. Three transformations of Kundana Bai.
35. Vishnu on Sheshnag, Laxmi, Brahma in lotus flower and Shiva on Mount Kailash.
36. King Harish Chandra, Queen Taramati and Prince Rohit.
37. Hanuman is touching feet of Rama.
38. Story of Dutibai.
39. Story of Shravan Kumar.
40. Hut of poor Sudama, a friend of Krishna is decorated with Diamonds and Gold.
41. Khichada (An Indian sweet dish) is taken by god.
42. Power of Lord Shiva and material world.
43. Goddess Jagdamba or Durga riding on Lion or Tiger.
44. Godess Behmata is riding on Swan.
45. Rama, Lakshman, Sita.
46. First door of Kaavad remains closed and second remains open.
47. Shani Baba.
48. Secret Chamber (Gupt Vadi)
49. Praise of Shravan Kumar, the devotee of the supreme God.
The Kaavad form of storytelling is slowly losing its significance to contemporary audiences with the onset of television and other digital media. This has transformed Kaavad from a storytelling device to a decorative object, in turn reducing the need for the Kaavadiyas or storytellers. The patrons are also diminishing and the craftsmen now look to other sources of income.
Kaavad is made by the Suthars or carpenters of Bassi, using simple raw materials like wood and paint. The wooden panels are hinged together so that they can open up manifold to reveal many captivating stories and events.
Wood: Sheesham or Mango wood is commonly used. It is sourced from the surrounding forests. The wood is mostly obtained from forests by Muslim community of the village.
Colour stones: Readily available in the local shops, these stones are then powdered and mixed with water and gum to make natural colors.
Gum: Gum is usually taken into account to make the colour solution viscous. In old times the gum was brought by Bhil community who used to exchange gum for food. Nowadays gum is easily available in general stores lining the local market of Bassi.
Metal hinges: Contemporary carpenters, keep these metal hinges handy, as doors and windows are mostly pivoted on these hinges. Hinges that were used earlier were hand forged; they were attached to the wood with the help of a nail and a plate.
Paints and brushes: The storytellers also utilize commonly available artist colours and brushes to paint and render their drawings; these are available in local stationary shops.
Varnish: A common substance in carpentry, it is used to provide glossy finish to the wood.
As Suthars have been practicing carpentry since centuries, the Kaavad manufacturing methods have evolved efficiently, craftsmen ensure that minimal amount of wood is wasted. The wooden scrap is then either used in firewood or used in making wood paste for filling cracks in the wood.
The tools used are basic ones used in regional carpentry. Their local names are Basola, Reti, Tankla, Badi reti, Guniya, Kasariya, Prakaar, Jammur, Radda, Hathodi, Karot.
Kaavadiya bhats are invited into the houses of their patrons to sing or tell the folk tales and narrate history through their Kaavad, the arrival of Kaavadiya is celebrated by offering them money and food. Patrons take pride in the stories of their ancestors and new generations are made aware about various folk tales prevalent in the region since centuries.
Building the shrine
The Suthars first build the shrine using wood. The frame is made in six levels. The prototype of every part of the frame is available with the carpenter. They trace the outlines of these on pieces of wood and cut them out using the saw. These pieces are then assembled together to make the complete setup.
Treating the wood
The framework is then fumigated to avoid infestation by insects and termites. It is placed over mesh which covers a small furnace. The frame is wrapped in a jute cloth to trap the fumes inside. It takes upto twenty minutes to one hour. Any cracks or deformities in the wood become visible at this stage. These cracks are filled with a mixture of wood powder and fevicol.
The storyboard is made on paper; the story is split into frames keeping in the mind the dimensions of the Kaavad. When the craftsman starts the final drawing on Kaavad with the brush, this paper serves as the reference.
The colouring starts with the process called ‘Khadi Potna’ which means applying white paint or distemper on the frame. Once this coat dries, a red colour is applied throughout as the base colour. Yellow borders are made after applying the base colour and boxes are demarcated as panels for the stories.
Gora colour is the first colour which is filled for the faces. The second is Asmani or blue, used only to colour incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The eyes are completed last with white colour. The black outline is done in the end, using soot or kohl.
Small white dots are put around the figures after the outlines. This is called ‘Moti lagana’.
To make the surface look smooth and glossy, a varnish is applied on Kaavad. This step also ensures the longevity of Kaavad’s storyboard.
List of craftsmen.