The Intangible Heritage of Phad Painting

A commemorative stamp was issued in the year 1992 in honour of the intangible heritage of Phad painting – an INR 5.00 stamp depicting a section of the Dev Narayan Phad. Executed by one of the most accomplished Phad artists and a Padma Shree recipient, Shree Lal Joshi, it was a glorious tribute to this 700-year-old oral cum visual folk-art tradition of Rajasthan. We can delineate the history of art in India, through the trajectory it has taken from frescoes to murals leading up to miniatures. Miniatures are not to be confused with the size of the paintings and actually refer to art that was executed to complement text, which happened with the advent of manuscripts. Paintings started to be drawn on different kinds of materials – paper, cloth, palm leaves and so on. With regard to frescoes, Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features cave paintings, the earliest of which are roughly 10,000 years old. Jogimara Caves located in Ramgarh Hills; Chhattisgarh also feature some of the oldest coloured frescoes in Asia.

Indian miniature painting can be traced back to the 9th century AD in the Buddhist Pala period, when palm leaf manuscripts were used in Eastern India for Jain palm leaf manuscripts in Western India1 in the Apabhramsa School of Art or Jain School of Art around 11th-15th century AD. The various regions in India, in similar vein, had unique schools, furthering the regional art such as Lepakshi paintings of the Vijayanagara Empire; Sultanate paintings (13th century to mid-16th century) which include illustrations in manuscripts as well as murals; Mughal miniature painting; Rajasthani paintings (which included the Mewar School, Marwar School, Hadoti School and Dhundar school); Tanjore paintings in the south, to name just a few. Amongst one of the many art forms, is the unique art form of Phad paintings of Shahpura, a princely state of Rajasthan. Some place the origins of this folk art at Pur, in Bhilwara district2. Phad paintings drew on elements from other thriving schools such as Mewar, Kishangarh, Kota, Bundi, Jhalawar, Jaipur and Bikaner3. Etymologically, the word “Phad” can be said to be a derivative of the Sanskrit word “patt”, meaning a flat painting surface or simply a Rajasthani word which means a fold. In either of the derivations, the meaning of the word suitably describes this visual-oral narrative of Rajasthan, as we’ll discover a little later in this blog.

The Phad chitra or painting is a hand-painted religious and folk scroll painting, done on a piece of fabric. The deities depicted traditionally are Devnarayan ji (considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and Pabu ji Rathore (Considered an incarnation of Lord Rama’s brother, Lakshmana) and it was from these ancient God-like figures that the initial inspiration to create Phad emerged. Goga ji, Dev ji, Teja ji, Ramdev ji, Narikunjar, Panchtatva ka Ghoda, Lord Krishna, Prithviraj Chauhan, Amar Singh Rathore, Rani Padmani, scenes from Ramayan, Mahabharat and Gita Govinda are some other emerging themes, with an inclination, in recent times, to depict social themes as well. Of late the size of the Phad paintings have also reduced, with the smaller ones called Phadakye. These scrolls (Phad), form the backdrop or foundation to the epic tales of the local God-like heroes, mentioned earlier, and are carried from place to place by the narrators. The Phads are considered extremely sacred and not traditionally viewed as solely art. In fact, they are worthy of worship just as a deity in the temple, as the communities involved believe that the deity is awakened in the Phad, on the completion of the painting by the Phad artist and before the handover to the narrators (who are referred to as Bhopa and Bhopi)
The origins of the Phad lie in the folk or local deities worshipped by the Rebari tribals in Rajasthan. These deities are worshipped on all auspicious occasions and also to appease them during ominous times. The primary participants in this folk art are those who create the Phad (the artists); those who perform the ritual, dance, song and narration with Phad as their shrine (Bhopa and Bhopi – priest and priestess); the patrons (in earlier times) who sanctioned the creation of the Phad and finally the audience who are active participants, while the Bhopa and Bhopi present the Phad to the audience.

The Chippa painters (who execute the Phad paintings) historically belonged to the Joshi clan of Bhilwara, Rajasthan. The narrators of the Phad, Bhopas, are essentially folk singers and hail from the north western district of Jodhpur and Nagaur and have their roots in the Nayak Adivasi (tribal) community [4]. Phad enjoyed royal patronage from its inception till the end of the 18th century and Bhopas essentially performed for their patrons. During these times, Phad paintings were gifted to the Bhopas by the patrons, who believed it was an act of reverence shown to the presiding deity of the Phad. Overall, it can be garnered that while deep reverence for the deities existed, the prayers were centered around certain material gains or protection against evil forces [5]. When royal patronage declined and further, with Indian independence, the demand for their art started to decline considerably. A revival of sorts took place with some noted Phad painters persisting with execution of Phad paintings and with staunch believers (Bhopas), in the sacredness of this craft, continuing to perform. With an influx of foreign tourists and appreciation of ancient arts and crafts; this folk art has continued to survive, despite an over looming threat post-Independence.
Phad paintings are believed to have been commissioned first by Chochu Bhat, a devotee of Lord Devnarayan [6]. It is believed Devnarayan ji incarnated in the year 911 AD as the son of a Gurjar warrior. Pabu ji, is also worshipped as a folk deity, as Devnarayan ji. He lived in the 14th century AD in a village, Kolu, near Jodhpur.

Phad paintings retain certain characteristic features which are common to all Phads. Further, the knowledge of painting this unique art was confined only to the Joshi clan, which led to consistency in design features. It was only in the 1960s, that, owing to a sudden lack of Phad artists, one of the leading painters, Shri Lal Joshi, opened a Chitrashala (school of painting), where students from all over were accepted for imparting knowledge of this ancient art form and several other Rajasthani art works. Girls also were instructed on the nuances of this art form, though this opportunity was not available to women earlier; even to those belonging to the Joshi clan, as they would eventually move out of the family, when married, thus potentially passing the knowledge to ‘outsiders’.
So, what were the features of Phad paintings? Devnarayan ji Phad scrolls were usually 30 feet long and 5 feet broad, while the dimensions were 15 feet by 5 feet for the Pabu ji Phad. These days the Devnarayan ji Phad is roughly 18-20 feet long. The figures in the Phad are not front facing; they normally face other characters in the painting. The central figure of the Phad would normally occupy more space and is painted perceivably larger than other figures; which essentially suggests that the social status of the character determined how much space he occupied on the canvas. The story would have all the ingredients typical to the stories of the folk heroes and we are specifically concerned with the stories of the above two God-like protagonists. “Women, horses, peacocks, carts, arches, battles, washer men and fishermen, kings and queens, huge grey elephants, herds of white cows, buff camels, many-armed demons, fish-tailed wonder creatures and blue-skinned Gods, all arranged around the central outsized figure of Pabu ji, his magnificent black mare, Kesar Kalami and his four great companions and brothers in arms, writes William Dalrymple, a historian, on the Pabu ji Phad [7]. “The figures are rounded, wear traditional attire and headgear and bright colours are used to fill them [8]”, says Kalyan Joshi a well-known artist. The entire canvas is filled with characters from the epic; leaving a diverse mix of colour and events on all available space. The Phad depicts the concerned epic sequentially with all major events painted in order, for a narration by the Bhopa.

Colours of Phad paintings are an oft-discussed subject. They were traditionally painted with natural colours, prepared by the women folk of the household, using gum, powdered earthen colour, water, indigo or vegetable colours. The colours are arduously extracted from natural sources such as stones, flowers and herbs [9]. The painting of the Phad commences with a prayer. The first stroke of the painting brush is done by a virgin girl of the household, as she is symbolic of purity and is considered a manifestation of the Divine Mother or Goddess, by many cultures across India. Prior to this, the handwoven cloth (used to paint on) is soaked overnight in water, to thicken the threads. This cloth is starched and is polished by rubbing, leading to a smooth and shiny surface. The painter then draws a sketch of all the life events of the concerned deity. A rough base is prepared with ochre and figures are sketched. The colours are also added in order - orange yellow for the sketch followed by filling in with brown, green, red and black. Specific colours are used for certain specific themes and would not be used elsewhere. For instance, the limbs and torso are painted in orange; ornaments in yellow; structures are painted in grey; water is painted blue; vegetation is depicted in green; red is used for the clothing and black is used to outline the figures for enhancement. As in many ancient paintings; people belonging to lower castes or demons were painted in darker tones, while deities and aristocrats were painted in fairer tones.

The whole art is considered sacred, with the patron (in earlier times) and Bhopa being present at the time of the initiation of the painting. The artist inserted his signature (and date) and it was common earlier to see the name of the Bhopa and patron as well. The final touch involved painting the pupils in the deity’s eyes, signifying that the deity had been awakened; post which it was handed over to the Bhopa. Traditionally, the first performance by the Bhopa would be held at the patron’s house, amidst the latter’s invitees [10].

While we have touched upon the elaborate ritual of painting and also appreciate the role of the patron in earlier times; the role of the third critical participant, the Bhopa, deserves elaboration. The Bhopa and Bhopi (Bhopa's wife and the priestess), perform the role of narrating the epic depicted on the Phad. They do this through singing, dancing, oral narration and use an instrument called Ravanhatha (a stringed instrument) as an accompaniment. The Bhopa is dressed in his traditional attire – a red baga (skirt), safa (turban) and Ghunghroo (anklets) are usually seen. The Phad is carried by the Bhopa, Bhopi and their companions wherever they go to enact the performance. The performance commences after sun down, normally in a village square, when the Phad (which is wrapped in folds)) is unfolded and held between two poles for the audience to view. A lamp is held to the Phad, for the Bhopa to point at, during the course of his performance.

Bhopas show the utmost tenacity when they narrate (called Phadbanchana) the Devnarayan ji Phad, for it comprises of 335 songs! In similar vein, they learn the compositions; how to play the instrument, dancing and singing for the various epics depicted on other Phad’s as well; holding the audience enthralled through the whole night (which is incidentally the duration of the entire Phad). The Bhopi, ably participates and contributes to the act, with singing and dancing, while only facing the Bhopa throughout the act, similar to how the figures in the Phad face only each other. The Phad is rolled back once again, at dawn, on the completion of the performance [11]. Phad colours are prone to fade and damage is inevitable. In such an event, the Phad, with all solemnity, is immersed in the Pushkar Lake (an event called Tandakarna – cooling the divine powers [12]); which hints at the tradition in India of immersing all sacred items in holy waters.
Notwithstanding all the potential threats to this sacred art, Phad paintings have withstood the vagaries of time. Change is inevitable, when the larger audience’s tastes are evolving. Keeping with the times, Phad artists have improvised with the themes and presentation of the Phad, which suggests a turn towards commercialization and lesser focus on the ritualistic aspect of this art. A single scene is now illustrated instead of the whole life story of the heroes. Further, excerpts of holy texts are inserted in the Phad to complement the paintings. Size of the Phad has shrunk even further to cater to commercial buyers (8*8 and 6*6 feet are common nowadays [13]). New stories are being experimented with, which have social relevance and can be inspiring and educational for the audience. Students who have passed out of the Chitrashala, mentioned earlier, are incorporating the knowledge of Phad into other artistic avenues such as textiles. As with all art forms, some degree of evolution of the art and a dogged persistence to persevere with a glorious tradition are two of the most important factors in keeping this intangible heritage alive! And our hope is that it stays alive, so that the voices of the Bhopas can echo through the vast tracts of the desert land and beyond, eulogizing the heroic deeds of those who are worthy of praise and emulation.


1.  Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, Indian Miniature Paintings: The Company School and Popular Prints

2.  S.K.Shekhawat, Phad: The Visual Oral Narrative of Rajasthan, 2018

3. ibid

4.  S.K.Shekhawat, Phad: The Visual Oral Narrative of Rajasthan, 2018

5.  ibid

6.  Dr.K.Mahawar, A Living Temple – Phad Painting in Rajasthan, 2018

7.  W.Dalrymple (2009) cited in S.K.Shekhawat, Phad: The Visual Oral Narrative of Rajasthan, 2018

8.  Dr.K.Mahawar, A Living Temple – Phad Painting in Rajasthan, 2018

9.  Thehindu/Take the Gods Home/2017

10.  S.K.Shekhawat, Phad: The Visual Oral Narrative of Rajasthan, 2018

11.  Dr.K.Mahawar, A Living Temple – Phad Painting in Rajasthan, 2018

12. ibid

13.  Thehindu/Take the Gods Home/2017

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