Myths, Legends and Alphabets

An exploration of new artistic styles and stories within the tradition Kavad format

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Kavad Art: The doors open to reveal a panel showing Lord Vishnu. Below is a depiction of the patron saint Kundana Bai. (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

Bhats: Storytellers of Kavad

Story tellers are called bhats and are professionally a community that call themselves Bhanwar Bhats. A bhanwara is a bumble bee. The name has its origin in - yet again - a story. A speck of ash fell from Lord Shiva’s forehead and became a bee, which the Lord then turned into a human being, who requested an identity. The wish was granted by the divine being who named him Bhanwar Bhat. It is his descendents who formed the line of story tellers in the Kavad tradition.

Kavad Art: The storyline being the focus, traditional Kavads had simple figures and a commonly understood iconography, with little focus on fine detailing (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The Suthars of Bassi village are a small community of carpenter-artists who make the Kavad, a unique story telling aid for a narrative folk tradition.

Kavad Art: Ghanshyam Suthar, one of the oldest Kavad craftsmen in the village, showing a piece made by him (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Among them, Ghanshyam ji is one of the oldest artisans, who has a traditional hand crafted Kavad that he shows to the interested visitor.

Kavad Art: Ghanshyam Suthar, one of the oldest Kavad craftsmen in the village, showing a piece made by him (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

In traditional pieces, the story line was the essence, and the figures were painted in a bold folk style without the need for fine detailing or refinement.

Kavad Art: The innermost panel is like a shrine, the culmination of the pilgrimage the Kavadia Bhat takes his audience on (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

The traditional Kavad commissioned by the Kavadia Bhats for their itinerant story telling, was made according to a defined format.

Kavad Art: Satyanarayan Suthar with the Kavad that won him a State Award in 2008 (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Typically 12 inches high, it had 12-16 panels flanking the core shrine on either side.

Kavad Art: The innermost panel is like a shrine, the culmination of the pilgrimage the Kavadia Bhat takes his audience on (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

The story line was delineated in 51 frames. The base colour was red, with the figures painted in a palette of white, blue, yellow, green and black.

Kavad Art: The narrative on the traditional Kavad follows a set format (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

Urban Kavads: New artistic styles to suit the contemporary customer

A Kavad is an artistic device crafted for the defined purpose of telling stories which integrate the lives of living persons, the gods, and even animals and birds, merging them seamlessly to serve the purposes of the narrative. The multi-paneled artifact is almost like a computer which has a folder opening into many sections in which separate aspects of a story are told. 

Kavad Art: The Kavad consists of a series of doors and panels that open to accompany the narrative (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A kavad incorporates stories from religious epics; has many deities appearing in short sections; local deities revered by the family or community about which the story is being told.

In parts, the story involves the exploits and aspirations of the person commissioning the work. It has a donor drawer for contributions and painted tributes in ‘hidden’ areas to Kundana Bai, a patron saint sacred to the Kavadias.

In their original form and practice, the start of the narration was ceremonial and sacred, after which the story telling could flow freely according to the information provided and negotiated by the patron.

Kavad Art: The Kavad consists of a series of doors and panels that open to accompany the narrative (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Contemporary Kavads are moving into urban living rooms, or art collections and museums.

While the basic format remains rooted in the traditional, Kavads are now venturing into new artistic styles and content.

Satyanarayan Suthar, an acclaimed craftsman from Bassi, explains the stories in a black and white Kavad he has made for a special order.

Kavad Art: A large Kavad made in black and white takes off from the traditional Kavad in terms of colourways and refinement in painting (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The 3 foot high Kavad is much bigger than the Kavads made for the Bhat story tellers, but is made in the traditional format.

Closed, its doors are guarded by the Dwarpalaks or guardian protectors.

Kavad Art: A new Kavad being made on special order (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

These open to a panel dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The inner sides of the doors have images of the Sun and the Moon.

Below these are references to stories from the Ramayana, one of the sacred Hindu epics. One section also has the saint Guru Ramdev, a revered local deity in much of Rajasthan.

Kavad Art: Kavad based on traditional style: central panel showing Lord Vishnu on the serpent (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

The central panel shows Lord Vishnu reclining on the serpent, his consort the goddess Lakshmi seated near his feet.

The three-headed Creator Bramha is also shown, as are a man and a woman, representing devotees.

Kavad Art: The lower central panel depicts Kundana Bai, the patron saint of the Kavad. (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

Below this is another crucial element of the Kavad: the central section with Kundana Bai, the patron saint of the Kavadia Bhats.

She is shown at three stages of her life – as a young girl, as a mature woman, and in her old age.

Kavad Art: The inside of the right door shows scenes from the epic Ramayana (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

On opening the doors of the Kavad, are revealed panels with scenes from the Ramayana and the other important epic, the Mahabharata.

On the left, are images evoking episodes from the story of Rama: Hanuman visiting Sita who is held captive by Ravana. The mighty Kumbhakarana sleeping; the ten-headed Ravana; the monkey armies assisting Rama.

Kavad Art: Kavad based on traditional style: panel showing scenes from the life of Krishna (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

On the facing panel are similar stories from the life of Krishna. The image of an infant on a leaf represents his escape as a baby from the prison where his parents were held.

The other sections recall various exploits and events from the life of Krishna – all are references that would easily have been recognised by the traditional audience of the Kavadia Bhats.

Kavad Art: The Kavad consists of a series of doors and panels that open to accompany the narrative (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The left door opens into the ‘secret’ panels – so called because these would not have been part of the narration.

These were patrons and references important to the Bhats, but whose information was not to be publicly shared.

Kavad Art: Kavad based on traditional style: the bhakt paat depicting the various professions - traditional patrons of the Kavad and followers of the faith (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

The right door opens to the Bhakt Paath – the panel dedicated to the faithful. These are the traditional followers of the faith.

Here too, there are first references to the gods Krishna and Ganesh.

The remaining sections are dedicated to the various professions. One sees the carpenter, the jeweller, the printer, the weaver, the cobbler, the potter, the farmer, and even the prostitute. All are equal in their faith and devotion.

Kavad Art: Kavad based on traditional style: the karni bharni - as you sow, so shall you reap (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

The next section Karni Bharni is an illustration of the adage “as you sow so shall you reap”.

The Bhats would refer to it to tell colourful stories based on popular folklore and belief, on what happens as a result of wrong-doing.

Hence, the man suspended upside down, the dog walking on the couple; or the reference to Holika who perished in the fire while the child Prahlad in her lap escaped unhurt.

Kavad Art: Kavad based on traditional style: the patrons' panel (2017) by Satyanarayan SutharDastkari Haat Samiti

The Jajman Paath is dedicated to the jajmans, patrons of the Kavad. Here the traditional narration would tell of the good deeds of the patrons and the donations they had made.

The panel shows the patrons as they would have asked to be shown – representing the attributes they would like projected, or their fanciful aspirations.

Kavad Art: The donation box (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A crucial component of the Kavad is the donation chamber below the illustrated panels.

Two kinds of donations were collected: one in the name of Kundana Bai the patron saint, on whose behalf the collections were to go towards the feeding of cows.


The other for the Kavadia Bhats, for the stories and virtual pilgrimage they provided to their audience.

Kavad Art: The Kavad consists of a series of doors and panels that open to accompany the narrative (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The innermost doors of the Kavad open to the ‘sanctum sanctorum’, as it were.

Again, the references are a mix: recalling stories of the gods, as also of devotees like Meera Bai, whose faith in the Lord protected her from all attempts by her family to kill her as she was bringing the royal house disgrace; or Shravan Kumar, considered a symbol of dedication to his parents.

Kavad Art: The innermost chamber has a shrine to Lord Rama (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The final panel of the Kavad is like an inner shrine. Here are shown the Lord Rama with his wife Sita and the monkey god Hanuman at their feet.

In the traditional accompanying narration, this would be the climax of the journey the Bhat would take his audience on.

Unlike the original Kavads, in this Kavad Satyanarayan’s figures are refined, with attention given to features and details.

Accompanied by the striking black-and-white colour scheme, this transports the Kavad, styled on the original, to a different level altogether.

Kavad Art: Dwarka Prasad Jangid at an exhibition (2014)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Exploring non-traditional stories in the traditional art format

Commonly made Kavads have painted stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata,  and Lord Krishna’s childhood exploits. There are fables from the Jataka tales which contain stories about the prowess of animals and ending in a moral homily. Often there are many small extracts from epics that contain complete stories in themselves. Stories commissioned exclusively for patrons depict milestones in their lives, and often their achievements and fanciful aspirations.

Kavad Art: The animal story Kavad (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dwarka Prasad is another fine Kavad artist. He has made some new Kavads which explore stories different from those of the Kavadia Bhats.

Kavad Art: The animal story Kavad (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

One of his themes is illustrations of the Jataka tales.

Kavad Art: The animal story Kavad (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Based on animal characters, these fantastical stories end with moral lesson.

Kavad Art: The animal story Kavad (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Made to the size of the traditional Kavad, Dwaraka Prasad’s Jataka Kavad adopts the same format of successive opening panels.

Rendered in a simple folk style, the paintings illustrate the story as it unfolds.

Kavad Art: Variations on the traditional Kavad are made in different colours, with an abridged storyline (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The same simplification of the story is seen in the small Kavads that sell in the shops in Bassi for tourists to pick up when they come to the village.

The themes and colours vary but the basic structure and format remains.

Kavad Art: The 'alphabet' Kavad (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Satyanarayan’s School and Alphabet products embody the versatility of this unique craft.

Quaint and eye-catching little products, they are small and convenient for interested visitors and tourists to pick up.

Kavad Art: Painted wooden boxes (2017)Dastkari Haat Samiti

While the Kavadia Bhats may be the original story tellers, the carpenter-artists of Bassi have successfully expanded the range of the Kavad to span myths, legends and the alphabet.

Kavad Art: Satyanarayan Suthar's large red Kavad which depicted the craftsman's quest for recognition (2012)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Read more about the traditions Kavad Art and Storytelling here:

- Kavad Art: Carpentry and Painting
- Kavad Art: The Quest for Recognition

Kavad Art: Bassi and Beyond
Credits: Story

Text: Aloka Hiremath and Jaya Jaitly
Photography: Suleiman Merchant
Artisans: Satya Narayan Suthar
Ground Facilitator: Aloka Hiremath
Documentary Video: Suleiman Merchant
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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