The Breathtaking art of the devotional Mural textiles of Rajastan Pabuji-Ki-Phad by Jaina Mishra, WovenSouls
Over the centuries, religious sentiments of devotion and worship have fuelled the creation of works of art that have survived several eras and enthralled generations beyond their own. The fields of architecture, music and dance have several examples of such timeless art but in the field of textiles, well-known examples are fewer.
The best-known devotional textile artworks are Buddhist scrolls and Islamic prayer rugs, famed as much for the art contained in them as for the stories behind their creation. Another devotional textile, not as well known but equally magnificent is the Hindu ‘Phad’ that is hidden away in the local folk culture of a small region of Western India.
The shortest way to describe the Phad is ‘a devotional mural storyboard painted on cloth’
But to understand the Phad in detail, an understanding of the context is necessary.
So let us move back in time to the 14th century when Pabuji Rathore, a prince, was born to a celestial nymph. He was so revered as a prince that after his death his status was elevated to that of a folk deity. To worship him, shrines were built and to keep the legend of his life alive, detailed stories describing his life were painted on the walls for all visitors to learn from.
Innovative Communication Method
In order to spread the stories further and keep them alive in the hearts of people living in distant lands, the message would have to be sent out and repeated beyond the reach of the walls of the stationery shrines.
In those days, the only method of long distance public government communication was the little army of traveling messengers on horseback. Each would set off in a different direction, stop at every village, sound their drums to catch the attention of the villagers and when a crowd had gathered, they would read out the public announcement verbatim from the scrolls they carried. The reading would last only a few minutes in each village.
This method provided the basic structure for the purpose of disseminating the legend of Pabuji to the public. With an alteration built in to suit the unique purpose. If the message of Pabuji was to captivate the mind, heart and souls of the audience, unlike the reading of the government scrolls, this message would need to be presented in a compelling and mesmerizing way in a leisurely environment wherein the audience could completely absorb the details.
And so the first multimedia presentation was born.
Exactly as it is in the corporate world of the 21st century, that 14th century presentation consisted of
– The main presenter : The Bhopa
– His assistant : The Bhopi
– The visual aid : The Phad textile
– The music : The Ravanhatta played by the Bhopa
– The lighting : The long armed oil lamp carried by the Bhopi
This compact unit traveled from one village to another with the purpose of keeping the legend of Pabuji alive.
The Village Performance
The Bhopa arrives at a village and sets up the performance area. The 15 foot long Phad artwork is suspended from two bamboos like a screen and the area in front of it is cleared for the Bhopa and Bhopi to perform. Villagers arrive and seat themselves on the ground facing the screen and once the sun has set, the show begins with a little worship ritual of the Phad.
The Phad contains over 70 different scenes from the life of Pabuji that will be narrated through the night. In order to prevent the audience from being distracted by too many illustrations, the screen is left in darkness. Then as the Bhopa sings out a specific scene, the Bhopi provides the spotlight for that particular scene using her handheld oil lamp.
The order in which the scenes are narrated is intentionally different from the order in which they are drawn on the Phad. This allows an opportunity for movement and dance from one end of the Phad to the other thus creating additional entertainment for the audience.
And so, scene-by-scene, the pair move forward and backward along the Phad and light up the night with their singing, with their Ravanhatta music and the enchanting glow of the oil lamp.
The Bhopas & the Phad Artists
This performance continues even today in the villages and towns of southern Rajasthan & in Malwa, a district of Madhya Pradesh. About 200 roaming Bhopas and their wives continue their ancestral vocation of spreading the stories of Pabuji*.
These Bhopas live very frugal lives and their homes are usually mud homes that are susceptible to nature and often washed out during the rains. Their travel conditions combined with the harsh climate of the region all have a detrimental effect on their possessions including their Phads. Each Phad therefore, although built for a rugged life, rarely lasts beyond 3 generations of active use. When a Phad needs replacement, the Bhopas approach the Phad artists to commission new artworks.
Today there are about 12 Phad artists who continue with their ancestral art. In addition to painting textile murals, they also paint the same artworks on the walls of temples.
Interviews with the renowned Phad artist Shri Kalyan Joshi revealed that the process of creating the Phad artwork is as venerated as the Phad itself.
The Art Process
Once the cloth has been starched and burnished** the painting is initiated with a ceremony to mark the auspicious beginning. As in most initiation rituals among Hindus, a young unmarried girl is invited to create the holy symbol of the Swastika with the first strokes of the brush on the cloth. The cloth is now ready to be painted upon.
Natural paints are made using materials found in the region are used. Yellow is made from Hartal found near the Mica mines of the region, red is made from Sangrak, brown is made from Geru and the blue is made from Indigo. Natural Bisabol is mixed in the black used for the outline to repel insects and worms. Natural gum and Kathaa (used in betel nut leaf preparations) are also added to the paint.
Once the locations and the proportions of the various characters have been planned on the large textile the painting begins with the application of color, beginning with the lightest. Across the entire 15 feet, that color is applied wherever necessary before moving on to the next darker color. Once all the colors have been applied, the black outlines are put in.
Bringing the Phad Alive
The most noteworthy element of the painting is the eye of Pabuji. It is believed that once the eye and the pupil are filled in, the Phad is instilled with the spirit of Pabuji and becomes a sacred article of worship. Since sitting on the textile is forbidden after that, the eye is painted at the very end. Furthermore, since this is to be a religious textile venerated by the Bhopa’s family, they are invited to be present when the eye of Pabuji is painted. The Phad is then handed over by the artist to the Bhopa in a ceremony after which a meal of Rotis and Jaggery – symbols of income & auspiciousness – is offered to the Bhopa & his wife. With this handing over, the artist’s creative journey of 2 months comes to an end.
The old Phad that has seen nearly a century of active service, is then laid to rest in Pushkar lake after a ceremony by the Bhopa and his wife.
Presence in World Museums
This unique school of traditional textile art has remained hidden within the folk culture of a small region. But in the past few years, examples of Phad art have made their way into the international community of textile art lovers. A few museums where Phads may be viewed are:
1. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
2. Brooklyn Museum, New York
3. Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam
4. National Museum, New Delhi
As a result of this effort, the Phad has once again acted as a medium to spread the legend of Pabuji to people in distant lands!
Phads of significant age may also be viewed at WovenSouls.com
by Jaina Mishra, Singapore, March 2013, through interviews with Mr. Kalyan Joshi.
*And also Devnarayan
** Burnishing or rubbing down with stone is an essential process as it makes the cloth flexible after starching and prevents the paint applied from cracking in the future.