Portable pilgrimages
A new book on Kaavads looks at this timeless storytelling device with warmth, fascination as well as a keen eye

In that great text, the Bhagavadgita, there is a description of an ‘imperishable tree’, which is said to have its roots upward and its branches down: urdhvamulam-adhahshakham. The text then moves, as a matter of course, in a philosophical direction, and adds a little later, "The real form of this tree cannot be perceived... no one can understand where it ends, where it begins, or where its foundation is."

When one comes to think of it, one wonders: is this not true of a great many things in our land — ideas institutions, practices — for who knows where they end or begin, or where their foundations are? We see them every day, follow them, put them to use: are, in fact, surrounded by them. But somewhere we also know that their roots are in that undefined air above us, with their capillaries stretching out, gathering and garnering, in all possible directions.

A view of the contemporary Kaavad by Ghulam Sheikh
A view of the contemporary Kaavad by Ghulam Sheikh; and (below) detail of one of the painted panels inside the kaavad; different episodes can be seen including that of Vishnu vatapatra-shayi, lying on a floating leaf

In this connection, a simple device, the Kaavad, comes to mind for there is a whole book devoted to it that has just appeared. Not to be confused with a sight commonly seen in these rainy months, ‘pilgrims’ so to speak, called Kaavadiyas — devotees of Shiva, having filled pitchers with the sacred water of the Ganga from its very source, carrying them in balances on their shoulders, walking for scores of miles, and ending up by pouring, devoutly, the water over the idol or emblem of Shiva in their village shrines, ‘bathing’ it as it were — the Kaavad is, quite literally, a box-like shrine, made out of wood, painted with sacred images, and carried about by a community of storytelling Bhats of Rajasthan, chiefly in the Mewar and Marwar regions of that wonderful state that is set like a rough-hewn jewel in the heart of India.

Detail of one of the painted panels inside the kaavad; different episodes can be seen including that of Vishnu vatapatra-shayi, lying on a floating leafNina Sabnani, who wrote this engaging book, describes her first encounter with this ‘shrine’ well. "When I first saw the Kaavad, it invited me to open its doors, leading to a discovery of spaces and images that folded into each other. One after another, the panels kept opening up, encouraging me to explore new vistas and thresholds to the left and to the right…. And before I knew it, I had entered its very core. This is when I realised that the Kaavad was just more than an artefact. On the one hand, the object seemed simple and disarming in its frank revelations of what lay within. On the other, it seemed to hide secrets and meanings that defied comprehension of the casual observer."

For the researcher, this colourful object might raise a myriad questions: the interplay between the object and the performance, the nature of the mediation by the storyteller, the connection between the stories that are told and the lives of the storytellers themselves, the experience that a viewer/listener gets from the stories that he hears or sees in visual form, and so on. But for the simple villagers — men and women, old and young, devout and eager and curious — the arrival of the Kaavad carrying Bhat in their midst is still an event. There they crowd around the painted, foldable shrine, viewing with wide-eyed wonder one deity after another, listening to spirited tales that go far, far back into the past and jog vague memories, trying to establish relations between one panel and the next one, constantly wondering what a flick of the Bhat’s hand is going to reveal next. Minds travel back towards ancestors long gone, and, through the ancestors sometimes, to the bewilderingly rich range of gods and goddesses who people our myths. Vishnu, the great God, lies as an infant on a floating leaf, birds descend from the heavens and attack elephants, Hanuman locates Sita in the ashokvatika, the Pandavas stand with folded hands paying homage to Krishna, Meerabai is put to the test by her faithless husband, the deified-hero Ramdev strides forth on his great horse. Each painted panel tells a story, each episode has a moral. A world of magic opens up as it were in which all things are real or — seen differently — equally unreal.

The storyteller Bhat Pappuram with his Kaavad
The storyteller Bhat Pappuram with his Kaavad

The world has changed, but this simple, almost timeless folkish storytelling device that engages and inspires, sometimes elevates, is still around. And Nina Sabnani looks at it not only with warmth and fascination, but also with a keen eye. For she sees in this storytelling device, the potential of new possibilities.

A young storytelling Bhat ready to travel with the Kaavad slung from his shoulder
A young storytelling Bhat ready to travel with the Kaavad slung from his shoulder

What we see through her also is a brilliant, contemporary take-off on the kaavad by the distinguished artist, Ghulam Sheikh, who constructed not long back a larger than life-size ‘kaavad’ with folding panels that you could walk through, peopled not with gods and goddesses but with superbly painted ‘icons’ of a different nature. In his work you encounter, almost at each turn that you take, men from the world of art and literature: like Kabir and Raidas, sufi saints and Jesuit priests, wandering sadhus and reclusive dervishes. And you see boats floating mysteriously down the river. As you walk, you discover.

The question that is raised in the book — does the kaavad, or similar devices and practices, have a chance of surviving in our fast-changing, fast-moving world? — is not easy to answer. But I am tempted to go back to where I began: the timelessness of so many of our traditions. And cite briefly a story that is popular among the kaavad-bearing, storytelling Bhats of Rajasthan. It is the story of Kundanabai, a devout Brahmani from Kashi. Because of her pure and intensely pious nature, she received from the gods the boon of immortality, but immortality with a difference. Each morning, in terms of the boon, she would start as a child; in the course of the day she would turn into a young woman; at night she would become an old lady again.

Who knows that this is not what is happening, or might possibly happen, to our traditions, and our practices: that they will keep changing, ever renewing themselves, but not die?