Monday, April 2, 2012

Travelling storyteller

A lifetime isn't enough to explore all the treasures of the state of Rajasthan. Every time we visit, we always come away with something that stirs our souls and makes us wonder how much more is hidden away in this country of ours.

I've seen this little panelled box, called a kaavad,in emporia in Delhi, sometimes in craft bazaars. It is painted by special artists with wonderfully detailed stories from mythology. It opens out in a particular sequence, and the innermost panel in the centre, usually depicts divine beings. Wandering storytellers used this little shrine to tell stories, going from village to village.

A blank kaavad that I  picked up at a crafts bazaar. Waiting for inspiration.

Last year in the annual bazaar called Dastkar, we were lucky enough to visit a stall run by artists who work on the kaavad. They enthusiastically showed us the different kaavad they had, including stories from the Panchatantra (fables), and some very modern depictions of stories like "educating the girl child". I enquired if they had a blank kaavad, and sure enough, they had one tucked away in their kit bag. It was all primed with white paint and ready to be painted upon.

It took a while to decide what to do with it. I had a completely different idea, but a sudden work trip decided things for us. We decided to use it to depict the story of the camel in Rajasthan. Base coats of red and yellow were applied using acrylic paints. Then my son painted a sun, as the driving force of the Earth. This appears at the highest point of the kaavad.

The kaavad was already primed. So I used base coats of red and yellow acrylic paints. I've seen that these are very typical colours used in kaavad painting.

Anant adding his touch - painstakingly painting the sun at the highest point of the kaavad. This is also a standard feature - and I presume it signifies the driving force of the solar system.

Instead of trying to paint the rather small panels without much practice, we decided to decoupage it using photographs taken by us over the years during our trips to Rajasthan. It took a while to decide the order of the photographs. The driving idea was that the pictures must tell a story individually, and in a sequence, depending on the target audience and the time.  

Finally,after the photographs were decoupaged, it was time for final round of painting using a palette of red, yellow and green was used to fill in some designs.

All done and in place at the World Water Forum in Marseille, March 2012.  The main point was to illustrate the interdependence of the camel-human-environment.

I took it with me on a trip to France recently for the World Water Forum where people were curious to know what it was and keen to see all the pictures. It made a huge change from projecting information on laptops and large screens. And it was handy enough to tuck under my arm and take it wherever I wanted. Another very interesting feature is that I needed to only open out the panels I wanted to use, and restrict myself to explaining those panels in a few minutes. The story of the camel usually began this way because that is the way the legend has been told for centuries. First came the camel. And then God created the Raika to look after the camel. They've walked together for centuries on this soil, with these trees and the hills and the air and water and their spirit. Here is a little tale about this bond.

It also helped in going into detail for professionals, and less detail with visitors who did not have a background in the subject. Somehow it was like taking a little bit of India with me, and I felt very happy and indeed privileged to be able to do that.

Colleagues from Central Asia were curious about this little theatre.

I see a few other uses for blank kaavad - perhaps as a photo album ? I also see it being used for inner work - maybe to illustrate the different panels with mandalas or art work describing one's spiritual journey - leading up to the innermost one? Or maybe being used by children to illustrate some themes for their school work ? Surely it would be a wonderful way to work with our hands and create a tangible object? It would even bear reworking - we could always paint over it and use it for something else.  It would be a beautiful way to appreciate this tradition and the craftsmanship that has carried on for generations.