Phad: The Art and The Artist
In an artistic and cultural country like India, it is relatively uncommon to come across marvellous handicraft artworks and beautiful aesthetic painting, that has managed to transcend regional boundaries and earn recognition internationally as well as within the country. Yet, one has to cross the boundaries and explore the rich Indian heritage to understand the roots of these glorious artworks. One such form of art, born in the land of colours and folklore, Rajasthan, is ‘Phad Paintings’. This type of art form is mainly practised in the Bhilwara district of Rajasthan, but the paintings are widely found all across the state. Phad paintings, in particular, form an integral part of Rajasthani culture.
‘Phad’, a Sanskrit word, refers to a long piece of cloth on which the painting is done. These paintings are unique because as per the tradition, they are typically done on a thirty feet long and five feet wide piece of cloth, and the work is done only by using natural vegetable colours. Sometimes, additional material like squirrel hair is also used. Each painting is a visual narrative of epic folk tales, depicting the exploits of local deities, and is carried from place to place often accompanied by traditional Rajasthani priest singers called ‘Bhopas’. One interesting fact about Phad painting is that every inch of the cloth is crowded with figures. Although the figures are harmoniously distributed all over the area, they strongly represent the characters and the role they play in the story. Another interesting fact is that the figures in the painting do not face the audience; in fact, they face each other.
The Phad painting is as old as 600 years and is still practised by many artists in Rajasthan, who have devoted their lives to ensure that this unique and invaluable form of painting gets fair recognition in the world of art. Vivek Joshi from Shahpura is one such popular Phad painter, whose talent and dedication towards Phad paintings have won him many accolades, including the National Merit Award in the year 2003. Joshi’s family has been associated with Phad paintings ever since its inception and it’s the family’s laudable effort that has successfully kept this traditional ethos alive. His forefathers had initiated the foundation of ‘The Shahpura School of Phad Painting’ (originally known as ‘Chitrashala’), even before Shahpura had emerged as a princely state. There was a time when the secrets of Phad painting were kept confined to the Joshi family. However, with time as Phad art started to lose its fame, the Joshi’s felt the need to establish Chitrashala to keep this art form alive. His father, Shanti Lal Joshi, was a renowned Phad painter and had been awarded National Award in 1991. In fact, at least 13 members of the Joshi family have been closely associated with the Shahpura School.
The legacy of Phad paintings being passed down since generations in Joshi family bears testimony to the evolution of the dynamic Indian culture. The Shahpura Phad paintings are primarily based on mythological folktales and anecdotes, depicting the lives of various mythological gods and goddesses such as Devnarayan, Papuji, Ramdala (associated to the Ramayana), Krishnadala (associated with Lord Krishna) and Matajikachandwa (a depiction of Mother Goddess displayed at temples). Other paintings represent significant Indian historical events such as the invasion of Somnath Temple by Mahmud Ghaznavi, the famous battle of Haldighati, the Jauhar of Rani Padmini (the famous Rajput tradition where a wife self-immolates herself to prevent being incarcerated by the enemy), the elopement of Sanyogita with Prithviraj Chauhan and the GangorSawari of Shahpura.
A traditional Shahpuraphad painting is usually made on a handmade khadi cloth, either 5×16 feet or 5×30 feet long, depending on the theme chosen. However, khadi silk and canvas are used by the artists nowadays. The products and techniques used by the Shahpura Phad painters are homemade. The colours used are natural and are usually prepared from the stone. The colour scheme of the paintings was determined by Joshi’s ancestors many years ago; where red is used as the dominant colour with hints of yellow and green. The colour scheme was chosen on the basis of the personality and appearance of characters as described in ancient texts and is used by the Shahpura Phad painters even now.
Creating is a Phad painting is a highly complex process. From preparing the cloth and colour for painting to the completion of artwork, the process involves well-evolved aesthetic sensibilities with careful attention given to detail work, with a rock-steady hand and oodles of patience. However, the time taken to make a perfect painting from scratch entirely depends on the size and area of the cloth. For example, a picture of 5×16 feet takes a minimum of 10 to 12 hours per day, and can continue for four months. Such long time is usually taken to depict the details of the contents.
The uniqueness of the Phad painting unlike the traditional form of art lies in the peculiarity yet alluring depiction of themes, unfurling its tale before the viewer, often accompanied with a graceful rhythm and narrated through melodious songs sung by the Bhopas. According to Joshi, in today’s date merely practising the art is not enough to preserve the precious legacy of Phad paintings. Today, where many of the traditional Indian art forms seem to be slowly fading away, inculcating interest and spreading awareness among the masses becomes imperative. In fact, Joshi is working on a Phad piece depicting World War 1. In the past, he had made a Phad painting based on Amitabh Bachchan in 2005. He believes in giving an insight into the more contemporary themes that have been adopted in the pantheon of this art.
Joshi, apart from interacting with people during exhibitions, conducts seminars and workshops for art lovers and aspiring artists. He specifically instructs them to apply new thoughts to this artform, while taking precautions to avoid diminishing its innate uniqueness and originality. He provides his students with relevant literature on the history of this art. With latest art forms like abstract painting and modern art gaining popularity in the world art market, Joshi is confident that none can replace the Shahpuraphad painting, depicting the true essence of Indian cultural values.
Since past few years, Joshi family has managed to draw the attention of many art lovers and enthusiasts and has built a significant consumer base through the many exhibitions that it has been a part of. Through the exhibition held across the world, they get an opportunity to interact with people. The response that they receive is overwhelming, and that’s what has kept them going for years. However, Joshi feels that the government should take a greater initiative in promoting these artworks by providing the artists with a more commercially viable platform, and through awareness campaigns and sponsorship. Till then, it is because of the artists like Vivek Joshi and his family that the rich cultural tradition of Phad painting is still alive and thriving.