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Excerpt from an article* I wrote for Jozan Magazine about the Art of the Phad.
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.”
THE PASSION OF THE BHOPA:
With the primary objective of meeting Bhopas and experiencing their lives, I traveled to Jaisalmer. Through the kindness of the people I met along the way, I managed to arrange a meeting with a genuine Bhopa and his wife the Bhopi.
Their whole life is consumed by their passion for their art. And so they were more interested in performing the Katha of Pabuji for me and my camera rather than talking about themselves. They felt that they had no value to offer me other than their art. They felt that they had nothing to say about themselves. They could not conceive that they as individuals could also be interesting for me to talk to.
And so they did for me what they loved best – they sang the legend of Pabuji.The partial Pabuji ki Phad was hung up against the wall as the backdrop scene for the performance. It would act as the visual aid for their melodious narration.
Picking up his simple Ravanhatta instrument, he began singing out the story moving from one scene to another on the Phad. His steps could not be called a dance but every now and then, his movement became animatedly poetic and passionate. She on the other hand, sang standing in one spot with her veiled face turned away from the audience.
This was not just a performance for one can see those even in the posh theatres of the big cities. What I watched that day and hope to convey through the photos that follow is a show of passion consuming the soul. The frenzy in the man’s movement, in his eyes, in his (and her) voices, is that of a man possessed by a spirit – a spirit that wants nothing other than to expend itself in the bliss of its art. A spirit that is joyous and exuberant at the opportunity to indulge in the art again. A spirit that cannot see beyond the love of its life – the art – that has not noticed the tatters that the mulmul dhoti is in – nor does it care. All that the spirit wants – is to sing again and again and again. Simply out of love for the art.
Such a performance is priceless. Such a passion is rare. And to find it in the Bhopa who lived below the poverty line is ironic – for on the one hand he is poor but on the other hand he is among the most fulfilled , the most blissful people I have met. In his singing he seemed like he was attaining Nirvana. Just watching him, I feel exalted.
A few images of a man whose passion touched my soul. He is quite possibly the poorest artist that I have met. And the richest.
Note his facial expressions in all the pictures – he is completely consumed by his passion….
It felt shameful that I was in a position to favor him financially, when in fact he was on the higher pedestal compared to me. How did it come to be this way? That such tremendous art is not valued and he in spite of his greatness bowed to an average person like myself simply because I had a little more money than him?
The Phad he is using is just a partial phad – he could not afford the complete piece and as it happens sometimes, family heirlooms get literally split up. His dhoti was torn.
Before we began we performed a little worship ritual before the Phad as the story is that of a king who is now considered a folk-god.
When he arrived he had no idea what he would earn. When I gave him the money, he did not even check how much it was and just put it in his pocket. His attitude was surreal.
This is the Bhopas ancestral career. He learnt the entire narration – that lasts 4-5 hours by rote. He cannot not read or write.
His son, like most of the sons of other Bhopas of the region, is pursuing some other lucrative career. This is the last generation practicing this art.
Me with the enlightened Bhopa. It was an honor to be in his presence.
P.S. This entire episode could not have been possible without the generous help of Narayanji who arranged this. His own story is amazing and is truly inspirational! Am fortunate to meet real-life heroes who changed their lives with their own inner spirit!
Click here to view the Pabuji & Devnarayan Phads (or as Christie’s calls them ‘Pars’ ) on the WOVENSOULS Gallery website
(Read the Complete Article HERE.)
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Im also a big time lover of phad paintings ans the passion of bhopas for their art really fascinates me.wish one day i can see them live performing.
Wow! That’s news! Interesting to learn this side ! But as complex as India is, there are a million facets to the same story!