Jodhpur artist becomes the guardian of ‘Kavad’- a portable wooden shrine carried by traditional storytellers

The lasting power of storytelling is immortalised by Satyanarayan Suthar, hailing from Jodhpur who has been making the rich colored ancient Kavad, a foldable  wooden shrine used to depict mythological stories.

No dust has yet settled over the Kavad art of Rajasthan which was considered to be an integral part of entertainment and the rich cultural heritage of the state.

Richly decorated with bright colours, Kavad is a portable and foldable shrine made using wood which used to be carried around 500-years ago by traditional storytellers known as Kavadia Bhat. It offers informal education to rural residents on mythological tales, gods, goddesses, saints, kingdoms, and monuments.

Painting caricatures from mythological tales and folklore in several unfolding hinged panels, these panels are now used as an attractive home decor assortment with a profound cultural significance.

For the past four decades, Jodhpur’s Satyanarayan Suthar, 47 has strived to keep the 500-year-old art alive. In those times, there were many elderly who could not visit these places and worship the gods. Kavad was used to bring teerath yatra (religious pilgrimage) to those who could not walk, like the elderly and sick.

It is believed that Ayodhya’s king Dasharatha accidentally killed Shravan Kumar while he was carrying his blind parents in a Kavad on his shoulders. Before he passed away, he requested the king to bring the shrine to his parents, so they could worship the gods. This is where the concept of the storytelling art of Kavad is believed to have started.

Tracing the tales to the mythological character associated with the art, Satyanarayan avers, “A woman named Kundana Bai used to remain in hiding. Nobody ever saw her; it was believed that one could only hear her. She was born as a child in the morning, would become young in the afternoon, and aged in the night, to be reborn the other day. Kundana Bai got a Kavad made from the Suthar community and gave it to Shravan Kumar.”

With the opening of each panel in the Kavad, the curiosity of the listener grows and new mythological figure alights, he learned this art from his father who would hand him a small wooden bar and wooden pen to carve out figures of elephants and horses.

Satyanarayan has taken this ancient art outside of Rajasthan to other countries like Singapore, Germany, and New Mexico, he  switched to online sales from offline when the pandemic hit the country,  most of his customers are  from Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi, and other countries.

According to Satyanarayan, they use wood from the Adusa plant as it is light-weight and pest-repellent. Firstly, they cut the bars from the log depending on the panel size then sprinkle an insecticide powder on wet wood and then dry it under the sun.

After this, seven coats of adhesive and primer are applied. In the end, the background is painted, and add more colours like yellow, skin, blue, pink, white, and black to sketch and paint figures using a fine brush.” Later, the wooden pieces are put together using nails and hinges.

Colours like yellow, green, blue, red, white, and black are used to sketch and paint figures using a fine brush. Traditionally, the colours were directly made from stones. Today, artisans mix the stone powder in adhesive to bring the figures to life. 

A six-inch Kavad is priced at Rs 500 while a two-feet Kavad takes eight to 10 days to make and is priced at Rs 25,000 — the price increases as per the size. Typically, there are about eight to 16 panels.

Satyanarayan manages to get around three to four orders daily and earns Rs 1,000 per day. On average, he earns up to Rs 30,000 a month from online sales. He also conducts paid workshops and teaches students from Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Mumbai.

It offers informal education to rural residents on mythological tales, gods, goddesses, saints, kingdoms, and monuments.It offers informal education to rural residents on mythological tales, kingdoms, and importance of schools, etc.

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