Theatre artiste Akhshay Gandhi revives Kaavad Katha – storytelling with painted doors

What originally started as a means to narrate one’s family history, genealogy and the story about one’s roots was later turned into a performing art by theatre artiste Akhshay Gandhi, founder and artistic director at Still Space Theatre, a multidisciplinary Bangalore based theatre company. Kaavad Katha is a traditional Rajasthani form of storytelling using a kaavad, a portable wooden shrine which contains a series of doors, each painted and part of a larger narrative.

“The Kaavad Katha is a 400-500-year old tradition practiced by the Bhat community from Jodhpur-Nagaur area in Rajasthan. The Kaavadiya (storytellers) maintain family history, right from the place your family came from, to your family tree and family business. A Kaavadiya’s primary job was to maintain histories of families and they would often present these to village folks who would gather around a tree to listen to them,” elaborates Akhshay Gandhi who has been performing the Kaavad Katha since the past three years both in India and at prestigious universities like Columbia and Stanford University, Mercer Community Center in Seattle and Ziesler Studio in New York in the U.S.A.

A snippet from a Kaavad Katha performance. Gandhi’s next performance is on July 28 at The Living Room Kutchery in Bangalore.

It’s a tragedy of modern times that such a vibrant and novel form of storytelling died with modern practices coming into play– the municipality was formed and began recording births and deaths.  As for the storytelling form, it could hardly withstand the advent of music, television and other newer forms of recreation, says Gandhi whose next solo performance is scheduled on July 28th at the Living Room Kutcheri and at Ahum on August 4 (at 6 pm & 7 pm respectively), both of which will be held in Bangalore.

“A few people invite the Kaavadiya community on select occasions; for instance, when their children are visiting home from the United States.  Most other Indians dismiss it just as another folk art,” states Gandhi while mentioning that there are two different communities involved in this storytelling form, those who paint the Kaavads, namely the Suthar community in Bashi (from Chittor region in Rajasthan) and the other, the Kaavadiyas who are the storytellers. The former have found some value in the market for the visual appeal of their works which are sometimes looked at as pieces of art but the Kaavadiyas have found little patronage or support from any institution.

These painted frames are Still Space Theatre’s interpretations of the Kaavad Kathas and are used for a large audience.

Interestingly enough, Gandhi first heard about it when he was getting married. “People asked me about my occupation and I and I told them that I am a storyteller to which some people asked me if I was a Kaavadiya,” he recalls. Curious about the Kaavadiya, Gandhi who had never heard about them before despite being from Rajasthan, himself he began to do some research on this dying form of storytelling. He finally stumbled across I.T. professor Nina Sabnani’s research on Kaavad Kathas.

 “I felt that it needed to be kept alive as a performing art if not a ritual. If not patronize, we can at least provide a platform for them to be performed before it completely becomes extinct,” explains Gandhi who alone performs the Kaavad Katha and was drawn to it as soon as he first heard about it and felt the need to bring back the lost art into modern consciousness.

Kaavadiya (storyteller) Akhshay Gandhi with the traditional Kaavad Kathas which is a traditional Rajasthani form of storytelling using a series of painted doors.

While talking about how he revived the form, Gandhi explained, “We write the landscape in folklore. We wanted to keep the core form but write our own stories instead of borrowing from Ramayana and Mahabharat. The Kaavad Kathas used to often begin with tales from these epics and then gradually move into individual family histories,” said Gandhi who tries to combine mythical elements with commentaries on society, contemporary leaders and culture.

Still Space Theatre is one of the sole groups which perform Kaavad Kathas, revealed Gandhi adding, that often they receive a better response from universities abroad where he has performed rather than in India. Hopefully, his tireless efforts will open the doors for this unique and ancient storytelling art on home turf as well.

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