I’ve begun to notice that I came to the right place for learning to tell stories. Just when I’ve made some decent headway chasing down classical dance forms, puppets, comic books, percussion rhythms, and ancient carvings which all exist to tell tales, along comes an entirely different concept to reckon with.
Why not box it up to take away?
In Udaipur, I had the opportunity to meet with an artisan of Kaavad, which I can describe very basically as carved and painted boxes that illustrate a story. His skills are not limited to carving Kaavad, this Mangilal Mistry; he also creates a plethora of puppets and statues, colorful ladies and gentlemen, tabla and sarangi players, snakes and their charmers.
Kaavad are a step more symbolic than the vivid puppetry populace. Mangilal Mistry has departed from the strictly traditional form that his ancestors have carved for generations, so he paints his boxes red-orange-green-blue, sizes them for pockets or to loom above full-grown basketball players, and happily details them with stories from the Indian epics and from the Judeo-Christian Bible. In the Bible, some important character or another was a carpenter, he pointed out to me – just like him. Whereas Mr. Mistry works in fine detail, however, the 2 centimetre tall carpenters painted on the Kaavad I’ve carried home are wielding a saw as big as they are.
Traditionally, the Kaavad was both storybook and shrine, carried by the storytellers to rural patrons year after year. The front of the box unfolds – and unfolds – and each available surface is divided into panels that contain illustrations of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, or local stories of divinities & pilgrimages. The cooperative process of carving and painting these boxes, carrying them to the patrons, telling and listening to the stories, and tucking a donation inside the last small door that swings open in the Kaavad’s base, together form an oral storytelling tradition that reaches back hundreds of years.
The way that Kaavad lends itself to contemporary re-interpretation is particularly inspiring. I met a couple extra generations of Mangilal Mistry’s family while I was visiting his house; children and children-in-law take part in carving, painting, sewing, and feeding guests with a type of papad that’s the closest thing I’ve had to corn chips in 7 months. Maybe their participation has something to do with his enthusiasm for outreach; he has taught the craft to students from France and the Netherlands (part of the reason he presented me with Adam & Eve alongside Rama & Sita), and he’s made boxes that convey public health messages for the local community. Nina Sabnani, the scholar who introduced me to Kaavad in general and Mr. Mistry in particular, has created a beautiful book called Home based on the physical and symbolic concept of this narrative form.
When I brought my new box of traditional stories to show-and-tell with three groups of students (and a few teachers) who I’ve been working with, however, it didn’t need re-interpreting in the least. In each case, the first shiny red glimpse brought my audience wriggling closer and the first smooth swoop of a door propped their eyelids open a notch wider. The images are just right to trigger emphatic questions and authoritative answers from children who have been absorbing these stories since they learned how to listen : Who is that? Where is Hanuman? Does it open again? Each tiny illustration prompts a summarized chapter of Krishna’s story, or introduces another relation of Rama. In other words, the simple appearance of a Kaavad, which my students in Secunderabad had never seen before, was enough to create a communal storytelling environment in our small circle on the floor. I am fondly imagining what it can do in expert custody.