The Story of the Kaavad: from Devotion to Decoration

What happens when a craft innovates so much that it loses its initial purpose? If the artisans gain livelihood at the cost of the craft, how does that change things for the craft or the way it is perceived? What happens when no one is there to listen to the stories of a craft based on story-telling?

Since the end of the era of kingdoms in India, the traditional patrons of crafts such as the kaavad have gone, and the craft is now sold to tourists from India and abroad who usually are not aware of the stories told by the kaavad, essentially a shrine in the form of a "cupboard". These stories were previously recited by kaavadiya bhaats (the customers of the kaavad makers) who could tailor the story according to one's family and context. Without the bhaats, the kaavad becomes a "display piece" another decorative item whose owner lacks the knowledge or sensitivity to treat it as a devotional object — a temple, to be viewed daily and respected as a work of art.

Crafts in India, never tell the story of its own plight — but instead their beauty and intricacy tends to belie the real state of the craft. We decided that it was time that artisans should tell their own story — of themselves — and the craft in general — via the very medium they use for their livelihood. For Sangam 2012, we used the kaavad to tell its own story — sadly — perhaps the last story it would ever tell.

We decided to give captions in English since most of the patronage comes through English speaking tourists who tend to be illiterate about the history of this beautiful craft as well as the stories it tells. In this way, the voice of the kaavadiya bhaat is replaced by the English captions. On the back of the kaavad are the authors (the artisans) themselves shown making the kaavad.

In collaboration with Mangi Lal, Udaipur