The haveli, in Bassi village, where we stayed the previous night (winters of 2010) belonged to a family of Rajputs who were descendants of a Senapati, in the army of Mewars. The haveli, especially the interiors, were tastefully renovated that perfectly suited the modern day needs and comfort. The staff was equally hospitable too. The cuisine offered by the haveli ranged from local to Punjabi and other northern regions of the country. The Rajput-family – retired Major and his wife – who still occupied a portion of the compound, gave us a company over dinner, the previous evening, and filled us in with respect to general history and must-visits within the area.
Having polished off a heavy breakfast, we left the haveli for the interiors of the village (not to be confused with the market on the main Chittorgarh-Kota road). Most of the craftsmen work and put their crafts on display in shop-cum-houses located inside the village. Although it was quite late in the day for a market, the street market in the interior of the village was still not opened. So we headed through the narrow streets to the ancient temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located at the far end of village. The temple was situated just adjacent to an olden step-well (Baoli) as well as a pond, both of which were considered equally sacrosanct.
The wifey paid obeisance at the temple and also confirmed the location of the wooden-craftsmen houses spread within the labyrinthine lanes of the village. A majority of the locations were spread around a chowk, called Nalla Bazaar, located on the main street. Having spent about thirty minutes, enough to explore the immediate surroundings, we headed towards the chowk where a few shops had opened by now. The recently built houses, mostly painted white, in the village adopted the widely prevailing modern day architecture while quite a few of the villagers continued to reside in their renovated olden houses that still incorporated the traditional elements like burjs, chhattris, jaalis, etc. In fact the village still housed many olden buildings, cenotaphs as well as sculptures.
The village of Bassi is prominently located on the map of Kashthkar (woodcrafters) clusters set in the desert state of Rajasthan. The Major had told us that the village is famous for its woodcrafters, shoemakers, potters as well as bidi-makers. Among the woodcrafts, Bassi is particularly well-known for exquisitely prepared Kawads, a folding wooden mobile miniature-temple popularised in areas of Rajasthan both by worshipers and Kawadiya Bhat story-tellers.
Before this I had read and heard about the Bhopa community, priest singers, in Rajasthan who performed similar religious-storytelling, albeit on a much larger scale, by reading through phads, a folk painting on a long piece of cloth. In this day and age, it may not be tough for one to procure the compositions of Bhopas, especially Pabuji, in an audio CD. Whereas, in this case, much because of the medium used by them, I failed to source any of the creations of Kawadiyas in a digitally-recorded format. The chowk proved to be a near-perfect site where crafts of various kinds and varieties were put on display. As I enquired about Kawads from the bystanders, all fingers seemed to point towards one shop.
I hurriedly approached the shop, which had just upped its shutters and was jointly managed by a couple. The husband was yet to arrive at the shop. The lady told me with pride in her eyes that hers is one of the few families of the Kawad-makers that survive in the village today. Belonging to the Suthar (Kawad-maker) community, her family has been engaged in this profession for the past 400 years. Believed to have been originated in Nagaur, her ancestors migrated to this area, which later came to be known as Bassi, as the Mewars were not only more amiable to this form of worship but offered better opportunities to the craftsmen.
The Kawads of various forms and sizes were showcased in the wooden slabs of the shop. The small portable wooden shrines had pictorial accounts of religious tales represented by Gods, Goddesses, Saints, Heroes, etc. on panels that were hinged together as doors in order. The visuals in the Kawads depicted stories from Hindu epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas as well as folklore. Engaged in Kawad Bachhana, storytelling orally, the storyteller known as Kawadiya Bhat, usually hailing from the areas of Marwar, takes the portable shrine to its client, the devotee or the patron, known as jajmaan, filling the sacred space as well as claiming an identity for all the stakeholders concerned with its production, expression and audience. The audio-visual renditions of the story forged a sacred alliance and synergy between the stakeholders and kept the tradition alive.
The Kawadiya Bhat (not to be confused with Kaavadiyas who carry Ganga-water before Shivaratri in some north Indian states) periodically takes the sacred Kawad to his jajmaan’s house (usually fixed and carried on for generations) for recital and receives donations in return. Although the traditional custom is increasingly losing popularity, it is believed that listening to stories, through this medium, purifies the soul.
Meeting her and learning about her profession as well as family was a notable experience. Although, with the practise of Kawad Banchhana fast losing ground, her ancestors had to take up other forms of woodcrafts such as puppets, miniatures, etc. as time progressed. We too bought a few craft items from her shop and asked for contact details at which she immediately flashed her calling card. The state government has been claiming to provide the remaining Suthars with some economic benefits in the form of popularising the art and craftsmen. At this juncture without much linear knowledge, I would rather not delve into the success or failures of such schemes. Without visiting other shops and hoping for the betterment of Suthars, we left the village and headed towards the Fort of Chittorgarh.