The Teller of All Tales: Storytelling Tradition of the Bhanwar Bhat

The storytellers of the Kaavad or the Kaavadiya Bhats are a community of tellers who inhabit areas around Jodhpur, Nagaur and Kishangarh districts of Rajasthan, India. Inherent to the traditional art form of Kavad, this community distinguishes itself from other Kaavadiyas who are water-carriers (those that carry Ganga water or Ganga jal). They use the term Bhat to signify this divide. Nina Sabnani (2009) poignantly defines the Kaavadiya Bhats as being married to the very term Kavad. Since a Kavad is made by the combined efforts of the Suthar (“carpenter”), chitrakar (“painter”), and storyteller, this makes each of them indispensable focal points of the art itself. In the earlier articles, we examined the folkloric traditions and the symbolism of motifs in the Kavad, we now turn our attention to the tellers of the stories themselves. 

Being the living speakers hence guardians of history, Kaavadiyas travel around reiting mythical, fantastical, folkloric, and historical tales to their listeners (jajmans). An interesting point to note here is that jajmans are hereditary listeners/adherents who carry forward the tradition of Kavad through patronage and collaboration. A storyteller of the Kavad, which at this juncture has been around for over 400 years, divides his listeners amongst his children; who then, divide it among theirs hence ensuring a chain of continuity that prevents the extinction of this unique method of narration. This symbiotic relationship affects all social, economic, and religious factors. For instance, the patrons offer Kaavadiyas gifts of money, calf, goat, jewelry, and food as per their capacity. In turn, the storyteller will narrate to them their origins, their ancestry line, caste genealogies, and generational events of significance. Like Jan Vansina's (1930) theorisation of oral performers being “memory men”, the Kaavadiyas have minute knowledge of local histories. Vansina states: “Every specialist knows what was historically relevant to his function... they are truly encyclopedic informants [who are] knowledgeable about all aspects”. 


Kavad Storytellers
Kavad Storytellers illustrated by Prashant Vilayil


The Kaavadiyas' origin tales are structured in a similar manner to how tales of yonder are formed. A story within a story with disputed beginnings. For instance, three theories are prominent. First, was the story of a devotee Shravan being slain while taking his blind parents on a pilgrimage, the second is the story of the ash that fell onto Shiva's brow. The ash upon contact turned into a bhanwar translated as "bumble bee" after which the bee became a human being. The third one is about the goddess Saraswati residing in their throats hence enabling them to memorize and speak-sing eloquently. Among these, the idea of the bee is interesting. Much like the buzz-buzzing of the ever-busy bee fluttering from one flower to another carrying pollen in its body, the Kaavadiyas or the Bhanwar Bhats move around like nomads gathering and dispelling stories. Their position within the Kavad tradition is deeply tied to their religious devotion too. Sabnani notes that Kaavadiyas do not travel during the monsoon for it is widely believed that gods rest during the rains. This break in narration allows them (the Bhats) to work “other” secular jobs as agriculturalists, daily laborers etc. She further adds that “the Kavad offers an identity to all the communities that are connected to it” (33). This line is especially fascinating because it illustrates the diverse ways in which communities/sects overlap, intersect, and communicate. No culture develops in isolation, a story from ‘here’ always connects to another from ‘there,’ blurring over and over, lines that try to demarcate each. This is not to say that “all stories are one” because this might have chauvinistic tendencies, but taking the example of Kavad and its three-part synergy, we can make a case for community collaboration and organic integration. 


Bhanwar Bhat showcasing their tales (Source: IDC IIT Bombay)   


In a 2019  essay “Towards the Visual: New Genres and Forms of Storytelling in India,” Kamila Luniewska talks about how a story can be uttered without words if its immediate audience knows how to read “codes of culture, signs and symbols” (151), and this is true of the Kavad art form too. The listeners of the stories illustrated in the boxes, did not merely listen for entertainment (though there is a ‘fun’ aspect involved ). Instead, traditionally, Kavads were miniature representations of holy shrines which people could not directly access. They become, in such a worldview, a sacred heritage of not just the people of Basayatis or Suthars in Bassi, but also of jats, of communities in Marwar, Mewar and so on. Visual images coupled with the curious act of ‘opening’ up panels, secret compartments, hidden clues and so forth, constructs a larger text (art as ‘text’) which can be examined. Stories create images on paint, and these images in turn, serve to restrengthen community and cultural ties.    


  1. Kaavad Tradition of Rajasthan
  2. KAVAD – A traditional visual story telling device – JAYHARY
  3. Kaavad~Bassi - Craft Archive | Research on Indian Handicrafts & Handloom
  4. Sabnani, Nina. “The Kaavad Storytelling Tradition of Rajasthan.” Design Thoughts. IIT Bombay, July, 2009.



Leave a comment