As the sun makes its sojourn downward, the delicately folded Phad is unraveled. A Phad is a 15-20 foot horizontal piece of cloth on which an entire folk tale is depicted. The stories commemorate deeds of local heroes. Usually the stories revolve around 2 main folk heroes – Pabuji and Devnarayan-ji.
Devnarayan-ji was a 10th century A.D hero and was known to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. His story is said to be very similar to that of Krishna’s. Pabuji, on the other hand, was a 14th century A.D hero. He was a local Rajasthani who abandoned his wife at the marriage pyre to keep up his promise of helping a woman from the Charan community save her cows. During his attempt to save the last calf, he died in the battle. According to the folk tale, Pabuji is said to have ridden his horse for close to 10km after his head was slain. A temple was erected where his body finally fell dead. Both the men are titled as ‘Cattle Heroes’ who vehemently fought for the cows of their community and ended up giving up their lives in the attempt. Cattle heroes are collectively called Bhomiyo. Only some Bhomiyo become famous and achieve divine status.
Today, renowned Phad painting artists like Prakash Joshi, are expanding and exploring the art form further by creating Phad paintings that narrate tales of Durga, Sati, Ramayana, Mahaveer, Buddha and even the Krishna-Leela series.
Till date the origin of the Phad remains a mystery. This is because once a Phad becomes old and worn out it is destroyed by ceremoniously submerging it into the sacred lake of Pushkar. This is ritual is known as Thandi Karna. Hence the earliest specimens of Phad paintings remain unavailable to us. The oldest Phad painting available today belong to the late 19th century.
A Phad is ideally only painted during the monsoon season. This is done with the belief that the folk lords are asleep during this time. Traditionally it is painted only by people of a special cast – Chippa, also called Joshi. Ideally only vegetable colors are used as paint for the Phad. This is because the natural colors remain fresh for a long duration. However, today the scarcities of these natural dyes compel Phad artists to use artificial or synthetic colors. While painting a Phad, only one color can be used at one time. Only once the complete usage of this color is done can the next color begin to be applied.
The initiation of a Phad painting is marked by a ceremony dedicated to Goddess Saraswati. Once a rough draft of the folk tale is drawn and perfected on the khadi cloth, all the figures are given a base color of yellow. This is called kachcha. Finally, the youngest virgin girl of the artist’s family is summoned. She makes the very first stroke on the Phad. This ritual is followed by a distribution of sweets.
Every available inch of the khadi cloth is covered with figures. Although the characters are harmoniously painted across the cloth, the significance given to each character depends on the social status and the role that the character plays in the story. Another intriguing feature of a Phad is that, the characters never face the audience. All character represented on the cloth face each other.
A Phad painter does not paint the eyes of the main figure until he hands it over to the Bhopa. The Bhopa is the performer-priest who uses the Phad to perform the tale depicted on it. At the time of handing over of the Phad to the Bhopa, the painter draws the eyes of the main character and adds the name of the Bhopa to the Phad.
Traditionally, the art of painting a Phad was never taught to girls. The painters feared that the skill would stray out of their family when women who were taught the art were sent after marriage into other families. The men would pick up the skill as they would be handed paint and cloth while they were young to experiment and learn with. Most young boys would spend a lot of time around their fathers and thus automatically be gifted with a flair for the art.
Once the Phad is handed over to the Bhopa, the exquisitely painted Phad is brought alive with music, dance and narration. The Bhopas belong to the Bhopa caste and are the men who perform the tale depicted on the Phad. The Bhopa usually adorns a red baga (Skirt), Safa (Turban), a red bagatari (A long Shirt) and ties Ghunghroo(anklets with bells) to his ankles. He uses traditional instruments like the ravanhatta or jantar to sing the folk songs. He is assisted by his wife, the Bhopi, who holds an oil lamp and illuminates different parts of the Phad as the Bhopa sings and dances. Using the intricately designed Phad the Bhopa, the performer priest begins the Phad Bachna – ‘Narration of the legend’. The Bhopa usually begins the narration by singing the lura, which refers to hymns of the folk hero. The performance begins once the sun sets and continues till sunrise. It takes up to 4-7 nights of performances to complete the narration of a single tale. Traditionally the Bhopa and Bhopi used to travel from one village to another, pitching their Phad at a central location in the village and performing it for locals.
Unfortunately, today India is left with only about 13 traditional Phad painting artists. People do not understand the value or the intricate work that goes into making a Phad. Prakash Joshi is currently the best known Phad artist in the world. He hails from one of the only surviving families of Phad artists – the Joshi clan. In 2009, he received the National Award (President Award) for his contribution to the dying art form. Prakash Joshi dedicates his time to teaching this traditional art form at Joshi Kala Mandir in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. He travels to 5-6 cities in a year to conduct exhibitions and workshops. Most Phad artists today earn income from exhibitions, workshops and classes. Artists like Prakash Joshi are heartbroken at the current social value of Phad paintings. He believes that the government must put more effort in the form of funding and sponsorship to Phad artists. Phad artists are often called by the government to conduct 3-4month workshops in teaching the art. However, these artists are bound for this time period by a contract that restricts them to take up any other external work in terms of workshops or exhibitions. Prakash Joshi claims that this arrangement is not financially viable for Phad artists as most of their income and networking happen during exhibitions and workshops.
Also, the market today does not give sufficient exposure to the Phad art form. For most consumers the cloth becomes a mere add-on accessory to the interiors of a room. “Majority of my customers today select a Phad based on whether it matches their wall colors or not. I teach my students this sacred tradition in a hope to revive the art in its true sense”, claims Prakash Joshi.
It is a pity to note that such a rich cultural legacy is vanishing at such a rapid rate. The creation and presentation of the Phad is more than just an entertaining activity. The entire procedure from the first stroke on the cloth to the last step of the Bhopa is done undertaken with a spiritual dedication. During the performance of the Phad the Bhopa becomes a priest and the Phad becomes a mobile shrine.