India being a diverse country, has a wide variety of art forms that reflect Indian culture and tradition. Paintings like phad paintings, which originated in Rajasthan, are one of the most spectacular forms of art where you can see the talent of authentic Indian rural craftsmen and artists. This style of painting is traditionally done on a long piece of cloth or canvas, known as phad, with the enormous task of representing a full blown folk epic narrative filled with figures & pictorial incidents. They form a dramatic backdrop to epic storytelling performances.
The principal subjects for the paintings are the life of two legendary Rajasthani heroes – Pabuji & Devnarayan ji, who are worshipped as the incarnation of lord Vishnu & Laxman. Nowadays, they also paint mythological stories about Krishna Leela, Ramayana, Shakuntala, Prithviraj, etc. The Bhopas, who are priest-singers, traditionally carry the painted Phads along with them and use these as mobile temples of the folk deities. The phads of Pabuji are normally about 15 feet in length, while the phads of Devnarayan are normally about 30 feet long. It takes at least two to three months to complete this long stretch of painting.
The Bhopa community travels to different places in Rajasthan and in the evening they narrate stories of God in a poetic form or by singing. Their audio-visual paraphernalia also includes stringed musical instruments called the ravanahatha that is made with bamboo props. The lyrical narration, accompanied by dancing, continues throughout the night. Each event comes alive, as the prabcham (narration) gains momentum and the audience enjoys the dramatic details of the legend. The Bhopas perform all year round, except in the rainy season when the deities are supposed to be in slumber.
Earlier only vegetable colours were used in these paintings as they remained fresh for a long period of time. However, scarcity of these colours would have ultimately led to a virtual stagnation of the craft, compelling the artists to make new innovations. Thus, the usage of water-proof earthen colours came into being. These colours are made by binding the natural colours with gum, water and indigo. Only one color can be used at a time and specific colors are used for different things – orange for the limbs and torso, yellow for ornaments, clothing and designs, gray for structure, blue for water and curtains, green for trees and red was predominantly used for royal clothing and flags. These figures are outlined with bold black strokes, giving definition to these forms.
One of the most versatile and famous Phad painters of today is Shree Lal Joshi, a world-renowned artist from Bhilwara, Rajasthan. He hails from a family of Phad artists who were once the single keepers of Phad painting. His father, Ramchandra Joshi inspired him to take this creative art form seriously at the age of 13. Joshi is known for providing new dimensions of identification to phad painting by developing a contemporary style.
His paintings exhibit episodes of the battle of Haldighati and the jauhar (self-immolation) of Padmini, the lives of Maharana Pratap, Prithvi Raj Chouhan, Rani Hadi, Amar Singh Rathore, and Buddha. He also founded Chitrashala, a pioneer institute for training different styles of paintings and especially committed to Phad painting. More than 2000 students & research scholars have been skilled in this style. His works have also been found in the collections of several museums, including the National Museum, Indira Gandhi National Art Museum, National Craft Museum and the Sanskriti Museum in New Delhi.
The unique blend of religion & art in these paintings has fascinated art connoisseurs around the world. It’s no wonder that today Phad painting has come to be regarded as one of the most sought after folk paintings in the world of art and culture.