As the sun rises above the Aravallis, covering the Rajasthani city of Jodhpur in gold dust, the song-and-dance performance of Narayan Bhopa and his wife picks up pace. As the 40-year-old singer twirls in his red, long outfit, ghungroos tied to his ankles and the ravanhatta, a traditional string instrument, in hand, the neighbourhood’s youngsters join in the dancing. The small audience sits transfixed, soaking in the upbeat music and the majestic sunrise.
The trance is broken only when Narayan Bhopa stops dancing, pointing to the Pabuji ki phad, a 15x15m, hand-painted scroll, and narrating yet another story of the adventures of Pabuji, a local deity considered a reincarnation of the Ramayan’s Lakshman, and revered by Bhopas, Bhils, Raikas and a section of Rajputs.
The phad is like a traditional, elaborate, hand-painted comic series depicting different episodes from Pabuji’s life—the war he fought his enemies, how he got female camels to Rajasthan from Sindh, his niece’s wedding. Bhopas use the scroll as a visual aid to narrate the story of Pabuji.
Pabuji na Phad, a Rajasthani music tradition dating back to the 14th century, is a one-of-a-kind, all-night concert on Pabuji. Bhopas travel across the state to perform at the invitation of pastoral village communities or families, including those that breed camels.
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Today, though, with fewer families willing to sponsor their performances, they are turning to hotels and music festivals to find a new audience and sustain themselves. The organisers explain the meaning of their songs in Hindi and English during a performance.
Before each performance, the scroll is unfurled and hung on wooden sticks. Bhopa, a traditional priest-performer, lights a lamp and blows a conch shell to invoke the deity before taking centre stage with the ravanhatta, made of bamboo, coconut shell, buffalo horns and horse hair. “My father, Tolaram Bhopa, taught me to make this instrument and his father taught him,” says Bhopa.
Generations of his family have read phads for a living. “We have always done this, loaded our mobile temples on our backs and travelled from village to village to sing the adventures of our deity.”
Throughout the performance, a Bhopa neither eats nor uses the washroom. “The reading is sacred. You respect it. You perform it with a clean mind, body and heart,” says Bhopa.
These concerts, generally held around Navratri, have traditionally been sponsored by families seeking cures for sick camels and cows and can last up to seven nights. The sacred scroll is made by painters of the Josi community in Bhilwara, Rajasthan.“It has always been like this. They make the phads and we invoke the gods,” says Bhopa.
Each scroll could take up to a month to make; a full-size phad costs ₹1 lakh or more. Bhopa songs, passed down generations, are in Marwari.
Till the pandemic, Bhopa and his wife would perform at least 45 phads around Navratri, getting paid ₹15,000 per reading. These days, the readings are down to just about 15 a year. “The new, educated generation is no longer willing to sponsor phads,” says the father of four. So, his wife and he often perform at parks, hotels and music festivals. “These are shorter versions of the reading, meant solely for tourists,” says Bhopa. “But I am not complaining. It’s better than the labour we have to do to feed our children.”
To see Bhopas perform, call Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, an NGO that works for the pastoral community in Rajasthan, on 9660083437 (Hanwant Singh Rathore)). They organise Pabuji na phad performances for tourists and heritage hotels.
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist.