Art is a depiction of culture as it is today and a reminder of what it was. Paintings are a visual representation of stories, feelings and ideas and they are limitless. One such style of painting that has stood the test of time is Phad paintings. This painting style originates from Rajasthan. It is an indigenous painting style that creates visual narratives of the folk stories and deities of the region. It is a style of painting which finds influences of Rajput and Mughal. It is said to have come up over thousands of years ago. It gets its name from the long piece of canvas on which it painted. It is considered a valued heritage from the Bhilwara region. The stories that are predominantly told revolve around the folk deity Pabuji and the stories of the Gurjar Warrior, Devnarayanji are depicted on Phads.
Phads were used as a storytellers tool when they carried their folklores from village to village. The pictorial representation by way of the Phad helped injected a new sense of life and excitement to the narration. In addition to this singing and dancing were included in the process of storytelling. The storytellers were the priest singers and dancers who were called Bhopas and Bhopis. They would carry with them their painted Phad scrolls and these became integral to their song and dance performances that would narrate the elaborate stories of the folk deities.
The Bhopa would be aided by a musical instrument which was called Ravanahatha. His wife Bhopi who would be with him would also sing and dance to the tune whilst reciting poetry and narrating the stories of glory. This tradition and simple storytelling tradition was transformed into an evening of fun, sounds and colours for the villagers. This phenomenon can be seen in some villages of India even today!
What stands out about these paintings are the tiny details. These details cover every inch of the canvas. The Phad artist was hence required to be extremely skilled and should adhere to the same techniques which were followed by ancestors. The complexity of the work meant that a single artwork could take months to complete. Because of the nature of the theme of the paintings, a lot of humans were depicted in the paintings. Analysing the size and colour is a sociological experiment of its own accord as it attributed to the role and position they had.
These paintings were usually done on fabric which was traditionally done on a hand-woven coarse cotton cloth. The first step is hence to prepare the cloth which was to be painted, this was done by starching the cloth. This involves boiling wheat or rice flour with water to form a thick paste which was applied to the cloth and this was then dried under the sunlight. Afterwards, a Mohra is rubbed onto the cloth, this helps make the fabric soft and bring a shine on it. This makes the cloth ready to be painted. As the paintings were made in villages, all the dyes used are natural and are obtained from plant and vegetable extracts. These earthen colours help bring an acrylic effect to the painting.
Typical colours used in the paintings were yellow, orange, brown, green, red, black, and blue. Every colour is used for a specific purpose. Yellow is used to create the outline for figures, ornaments and clothes. Orange is used to paint the limb and the torso. Green is applied for the trees and vegetation and brown for building structures. The red indicates royal clothing and the
flags of kingdoms and is also used as a thick border. The blue shows the water or curtains.
Finally, black is applied to the outlines. The most eye-catching detail in all the Phad paintings that are always added only in the end is the eyes. It is believed that the main deity’s eyes bring the artwork to life. Only after the addition of the eyes is the diety ready to be worshipped in all his shimmer and glory. As the eyes add life to the diety, the artist is not permitted to sit on the painting one it is painted. The figures in the paintings are aesthetically distributed throughout the canvas. The size of each figure is associated with their social status, and the part they have in the story which is being narrated. A unique aspect of this painting style is that all the figures are constructed in a flat manner and they face each other instead of facing the onlooker or audience of the image.
For a long time the exclusive rights to practice this tradition was centralised in the hand one family called the Joshi family. This was because they were the only ones who were trusted by Bhopas and Bhopis to create the Phads because the importance was given to authenticity and technique. However, with the gradual decline of the art form, Shree Lal Joshi, one of the most respected Phad artists, laid the foundation for a school that would be invested in teaching this mythical and mystical art form. This school was called Joshi Kala Kunj which was established in 1960. The school has now been renamed to Chitrashala and it is the torchbearer of the tradition Phad and works on preserving the technique and authenticity. Since the core of Phad paintings was the art of storytelling, Kalyanji Joshi Ji used the same techniques and started depicting characters other than the local deities who were Devnarayanji and Pabuji. Stories and characters were used from epic tales like Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Panchatantra. This helped increase the reach of the paintings to a wider audience.
It is important for us to understand and respect such artistic traditions of India because this is what helps us create our own identity.