Craft Revival: Phad Paintings Of Rajasthan Are Where Stories Come Alive

As a country that houses some of the most unparalleled crafts and heritage textiles, India never lets down. From the intricate Chamba Rumal in the valleys of Himachal to Andhra Pradesh’s majestic Kalamkari, there is no dearth of textiles if you are looking for inspiration.

Having talked about a number of art forms across the length of India, all of which are marvelous in their own right, for this edition of Craft Revival we inch towards the country’s west and to a state that is laden with a rich legacy and equally rich heritage textiles and crafts to support it. Welcome to Rajasthan

Image Courtesy: Tanjoresetc on Instagram
Image Courtesy: Tanjoresetc on Instagram

About The Craft

One of the most significant art forms of the state is the Phad Painting, a cultural artefact with a mythological inclination, one that comes with a vocal narrative. Resting on the shoulders of the Rabaris, the performers, the folk art form is a vital part of an extended routine which involves 2 members of the tribe staging a show. The subject is, more often than not, related to Indian Gods, Goddesses, and mythology; the Ramayana and stories revolving around the divine form the central theme. The two performers, who are the priest (bhopa) and his wife (bhopi) as per tradition, narrate the story in a song-and-dance recital, complete with a Ravanahatha, an ancient bowed and stringed instrument. As tradition goes, Phad paintings, which exhibit the deities, are used as an instrument to help with the narrative, opened, by convention, only after sunset. 

History & Origin

The origin of the art form is said to be Shahpura, a city in the Bhilwara district of Rajasthan, where it was developed close to a thousand years ago. In those days, royal patrons of the art helped it evolve further, with many Phad paintings choosing to depict royalty as their subjects. In these terms, the art form is believed to have flourished for several generations. 

Image Courtesy: Happy Strokes on Instagram
Image Courtesy: Happy Strokes on Instagram

The Process

Natural, organic colours are extracted from flowers, leaves, and herbs and are used for the colouring process before which the base, a handwoven cloth, is made ready to be used as a canvas. Soaked overnight, the cloth gives way to thicker threads, further starched and made stiff and smooth. The figures of deities are then hand-drawn on the cloth and painted over. Though black and white paintings with line drawing exist, Phad paintings are most famous for their use of 5 vibrant colours such as red, indigo, and yellow which make it easier for the audience to view. With a shift in practices over time, the art form now sees the use of acid-free archival paper and chemical dyes as opposed to handspun khadi or reja and natural hues, a bid to cut the process short. Additionally, the 5x30ft frame used in ancient times has been reduced to smaller versions that fit easily into modern homes. 

Image Courtesy:  India Craft Week on Instagram
Image Courtesy: India Craft Week on Instagram

Decline & Revival Efforts

A handful of numbered artists practice Phad paintings today. One of the torchbearers of the art form is the Joshi family, artists who until some time ago were the only practitioners of the craft. A foresight, however, lead to the creation of the 'Joshi Kala Kunj' by Shree Lal Joshi, a Padma Shree honoree. Now known as Chitrashala, it is a school that aims to promote, teach, and publicise the Phad Paintings, a legacy being carried forward by his son Kalyan Joshi, who himself has received a number of accolades.

Recurring exhibits and events at locations such as the India Habitat Centre are doing their best to keep the viewers in sync with the art form, but to keep it alive and intact, a lot more steps need to be taken.

Besides reading, you can learn about Rajasthan's glorious art form for yourself in one of the workshops conducted, often initiated by either Chitrashala or Virasat: Nonpareil Shahpura’s Phad Painting Training and Research Centre. For when it comes to the revival of age-old textiles and crafts that may soon be extinct, each and every step counts. 

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