The Afterlives of Stories: Folkloric Narratives of Kavad

In the much referenced Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, 1959, Theolor H. Gaster defines folklore as crucial to a people’s culture. From beliefs, norms, myths, legends, arts, and crafts — everything that emerges as a result of community efforts rather than individualistic ones, can be considered as folk-lore. His definition of folklore essentially being “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is central in visualizing the communal characteristics of verbal arts and the ways in which they manifest. Take for example the tradition of Kavad art of Rajasthan, India. Already unique in the sense that art is depicted on planks of wood rather than paper, its special qualities extend beyond just being two-dimensional images. The stories these boxes carry not only transmit oral history of the past, but also function as a mobile temple where devotees make offerings of money and kind. Kavad art has many stakeholders who come together to keep-the-wheels running, as they say. The Suthars carve wood first, and then the Chitrakars paint on it. Finally, the act of storytelling falls on the shoulders of the Kavadia Bhats who travel around singing-narrating to jajmans, the listeners. This holistic blend of three factors makes Kavad an art performance to behold.

The world of the Kavad is rife with motifs, deeply connected to the religious beliefs of the community that keeps it alive. If one panel elaborates on the great Hindu epics, another panel simultaneously weaves in stories of local deities like saint Guru Ramdev, Kundana Bai and so on. Amidst the lush growth of dense forests, a universe of illustrated whisperings unfolds, weaving together themes of devotion, faith, oneness, and even betrayal. As these conversations unfold, creatures of every shape and size bear witness, and the intricate tapestry of a rich folkloric universe slowly takes shape. In conversations with veteran storytellers like Ghanshyam ji and experimental artists such as Satyanarayan Suthar, it is apparent that they emphasize the “value of the story” rather than perfectionism. There isn’t any obsession with straight lines, or the right color, or life-like resemblances of events. Rather, Kavad art serves the purpose of ensuring that stories (both a blend of morality and history) continue to live on long after its “original” characters have passed on. The beauty of folklore is that it encompasses all traditional articulations from oral, scripted, painted, to even merely spoken! The close and meaningful relationships people share with these “communal creations” so to say, are what makes art forms like Kavad relevant in contemporary times too. These narratives hold nuggets of wisdom and knowledge about a community’s way of life. 

The Kavad box in an article produced under the ambitious Dastkari Haat Samiti titled “Myths, Legends and Alphabets” (2017) described these 12 inch’ wooden creations as functioning similar to a “computer” which collates all information under one folder. This visual imagery is true in many ways since Kavad is a portable, moveable object that utilizes visual, auditory, and receptive audiences to address. Though it started as a sacred and religious act of piety, over generations, Kavad has been re-interpreted and re-shaped into various forms. To imagine the immersive world of the Kavad is to return to our basics. Take the example of an onion with its multiple layers. Reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Tomatoes, everyday materials become potentials for artistic and literary expressions. The myth of Shravan, the story of an ash speck transforming into a bee and so on among other tales, leads us to wonder what the layers of such an exploration can potentially unearth. Returning to the age-old question of “where do stories go when they leave the tellers’ lips?” We ask, “do they die?” To this, one answer can be that stories remain “alive” as long as we continue to listen and retell them, thus making them truly – the lore of the folk.



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