Of Phads and Bhopas

Of Phads and Bhopas

Article dated - Jan 2013

Phad painting, a form of folk painting that originated in the princely state of Shahpura, is typically done on a scroll or phad in a panel format. The narratives of the folk deities of Rajasthan are depicted on them or legends of erstwhile local rulers. These painting ballads are carried like a storybook or sometimes as a mobile temple by bards / bhopas in the region, making the phad a unique bond between the painter and the singer.

The few surviving bhopas are the last hereditary keepers of some of the greatest orally transmitted Rajasthani medieval poems.  The most popular of the poems, The Epic of Pabuji, is a 600 year old poem is a tale of heroism and honour which seems to have grown over the years from a story about a local chieftain protecting his cattle to the saga of a warrior and incarnate God, Pabu, who died protecting the heards of a goddess against the demonic kidnappers led by the wicked Jindrav Khinchi. He also protects the honour of his women from the cow-murdering plunderer named Mirza Khan Patan. There is also the very popular episode of Pabuji’s great victory over the Lanka king Ravana from whom he steals a heard of camels as a wedding gift for his favourite niece.

The big storyboard phads typically depict the big durbars or palaces of the players, Pabuji and his warriors occupy centre space, and the courts of his enemies Jindrav and Ravana at the opposite ends of the scroll. The rest of the space is taken up by elephants, tigers, peacocks, camels, mango orchards, warriors charging into battle with their swords at the ready. There are multiple paintings within the same scroll depicting the different episodes of the story, and they are not arranged in a narrative order but more a geographical order. The bard points to each episode in the painting as he sings the poem.  

Traditionally, a painting is started on an appointed auspicious day when the bhopas arrive in the village for a performance. Once the outline figure sketches are inked and coloured a light yellow base, the first stroke of colour is applied by an unmarried young girl in the family, after which the rest of the colours are filled in.

The Joshi family of Bhilwara, who have been engaged in this craft over the last century, are the only surviving painters of this style in the country. The bhopas believe that Joshi’s phads have a unique shakti / power because of their deep faith in the epic. They have the capacity or exorcise any spirit and keep evil at bay. These phads are treated as art only till such time that the painting is in progress. As soon as the eyes of the heroes are painted in, it is believed that the spirit of the God is then in residence, and the phad, from that point on, is considered sacred.

As Dalrymple observes in “The Singer of Epics”, “The phad has a teeming energy that seems somehow to tap into the larger than life power of the epic’s mythology to produce wonderfully bold and powerful narrative images.”

*Photograph Source: University of California, San Diego

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