Saturday, 28 April 2012

Of Kaavads and Kanvarias

Each year during the month of Saawan, which usually falls in August, the long drive from Gurgaon to Delhi and back, is peppered with ‘Kanvariyas[i] bringing the ‘Kaavad’ or holy water carried on poles, from the Ganges, on the way back to their village temples in Gurgaon. Bhupinder, who drives my car, takes great pleasure in pointing them out to me; some barefoot, some in trucks with blaring music and others resting in the make-shift tents on the route. He delights in giving me details of their customs and the peculiarities of the ritual, where some I believe, do not put the pot of water on the ground through the entire journey on foot from Haridwar until they get home. Even when they take a nap, someone from their party of travellers is entrusted with the task of holding it on his shoulders. And Bhupinder insists that custom dictates that no one ever does this yatra[ii] only once; it has to be made at least twice in your life-time. The vagaries of sacrifice to challenge oneself, as presented through such religious rituals, never fails to amaze and fascinate me. 

In October 2011, I walked through the glass doors of the newly furbished gallery at Lalit Kala Academy in New Delhi, into another experience with the Kaavad. This time it referred to a portable shrine, containing painted narratives which travelling performers, like the Kaavadiya Bhats of Rajasthan used as a prop for their storytelling, where the narrator would open each door of the Kaavad to reveal a new layer, building anticipation with each new painted one to finally enter the inner core. Using this concept, artist Gulammohammed Sheikh[iii] created a monument called ‘Home’. This life-sized, box-like structure with panelled doors opened out to enable one delve deeper into the central core of the shrine, ponder on various images on the way, as each panel or door was opened. It was constructed in part by paintings with acrylic and melamine on wood, and a digital and electrically lit roof of the central hall, depicting the Baroda sky-line with various buildings that crowd the city, inhabited and abandoned, surrounding the sky like a constructed wall. Floating in the middle of this pale greyish-blue expanse, were all manner of mythical characters drawn from various texts and traditions, across the globe.

 I felt like a novice, a first time Kanvaria; intimidated by the swirl of images and words of the artist’s painterly universe of cross-referenced imagery that I was not well acquainted with. Rama and the deer Maricha, an angel from the Renaissance art of Italy, figures from a South-east Asian version of the Ramayana, profound words from Kabir with painted images of this weaver saint, a Chinar tree presented as the tree of life where a burning car and refugees carrying their baggage on their head, were a part of this journey through life. In addition, images from the artist’s earlier works were also presented. Visuals of the nuclear cloudburst of Hiroshima, Gandhi, Hitler and much more were also presented in various forms; some in smaller shrines or Kaavad-like boxes, others in digitally printed accordion-style books and as large 3-D sculptural installations. At first, I did not relate to this exhaustive outpouring for I could not find an immediate, succinct message in its vast intellectual exploration, such as I needed, to feel reassured in its midst. But I was enchanted by the marvel of technology in the making of the digital books and the eighteen-minute, three-channel video, where the artist and his collaborator had played enchantingly with all these images, juxtaposing them in historically unprecedented ways,  where the imagined and the real, all came together in a kind of surreal fantasy. 

Viewing this exhibition of works by artist Gulammohammed Sheikh was akin to a pilgrimage; necessitating humility, reverence and silence to view, question, listen and understand. I was humbled by my ignorance of myths, lore, history and even some contemporary events, which Sheikh presented that I felt I should have been able to recall, but could not. I read Kavita Singh’s simple yet elegant essay, watched the videos of work-in-progress and sat through the three-channel video, alone. Watching clouds and Sheikh’s version of ‘Mappae mundi[iv] merge, as people from the past converged with the present, I saw through aerial maps from Google, what this, our corner of the earth looked like from the sky; where perhaps some unseen eye of God observed and judged, and then maybe not.

Sheikh explored notions of a world gone by through figures of the past. He also called into question, by juxtaposing them with the contemporary world, the way we live today. He brought into play the demolition of Babri Masjid, Godhra riots and the issue of ‘whose Kashmir’: to whom does this coveted land belong? Were the sweepers of Baroda, who sweep away the city’s dirt, also the very people instrumental in creating the violence that Gujarat has seen?  All this and more was referenced in a quest to find meaning or solace or some perspective. Searching for clarity, Sheikh sieved through years of human history, asking us to question the premise of our existence today and where we draw our ideas from.

He questioned not just parameters of contemporary life and historical ways of living, such as a possible parallel, in the traditional churning of the seas or samundra manthan and the bombing of Hiroshima; Sheikh also enquired into the all-encompassing notion of life itself. Is there a right way or a wrong way to live? Was Ravana’s deception, his disguise as the deer Maricha legitimate? Sheikh drew me into an internal dialogue with myself, compelling me to question my own exploration of these ideas, making me aware of deeper reaches of my cultural and philosophical past. Like the Kanvarias I had observed on NH8, I too did not put the quest to rest, but kept up this solitary conversation with the artworks, even after I had left the gallery space. And when I returned home, late in the evening, I went through my library of books, looking up all those characters and notions I lacked in knowing.  

In this vast, exhaustive and intellectually rich presentation, I felt over-awed by the legendary characters and events which Sheikh had chosen to speak through, but where the self-effacing artist had seemingly retreated into the background, leaving me to decide for myself.  I cannot claim mastery over this vast repertoire of intellectual icons. I have not really explored these specific facets of life, or read the books he has, nor pondered the profundity of these words. When humbled by my inept and limited knowing, how could I possibly decide what the truth was, what was right or wrong, if at all? But Sheikh did not tell us. He presented a gamut of ideas, lending direction, but implying that each one had to decipher the truth for themselves.  


This pilgrimage, my very own experience as a novice Kanvaria, of carrying the burden of my ignorance through Sheikh’s universe, reminded me with each step, of all the world’s literature, myths and lore I had yet to explore; of countless intellectual journeys I had yet to take, or as Bhupinder had told me that a Kanvaria must do, at least twice in my life-time. As I sipped a cup of tea the next morning, I wondered: if and when I have performed this gargantuan intellectual exercise, will I find some answers to the all-encompassing, paradoxical nature of life? Does anyone?

[i] The Kānvar Yatrā or Kavad Yatra  is the annual pilgrimage of devotees of Shiva, known as Kānvarias, to Hindu pilgrimage places of Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand to fetch holy waters of Ganges River, Ganga jal, which is later offered at their local Shiva temples. It is named after the kānvar (काँवर), a single pole (usually made of bamboo) with two roughly equal loads fastened or dangling from opposite ends. The kānvar is carried by balancing the middle of the pole on one or both shoulders. This practice of carrying Kavad as a part of religious pilgrimage, especially by devotees of Lord Shiva, is widely followed throughout India

[ii] Pilgrimage to holy places such as confluences of sacred rivers and/or places associated with Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and other sacred pilgrimage sites

[iii] (b. 1937) is an artist, educationist and writer whose work has spanned more than five decades. He is a founder-member of Group 1890, which was founded in 1963 by a group of artists.

[iv] Mappae mundi were schematic and meant to illustrate different principles These diagrams were primarily meant to preserve and illustrate classical learning. The zonal maps were a kind of teaching aid—easily reproduced and designed to reinforce the idea of the Earth's sphericity and climate zones.


  1. Hmmm... Compliments and thanks for your post. Reading your reflections was also like taking that journey with you. I live near Delhi border, from where Kanwarias enter Delhi. It is a huge event with almost the entire G T Road blocked for a few days, loud music, religious fervor at its peak, bare-feet women and children washing their feet and massaging them to relieve pain... We are also like these by-standers, sometime silent observers, sometimes co-travelers for a while... ultimately going back to our own comfort zones.

  2. They do make a colourful picture, don't they. I admire those who undertake such a challenging journey. I can imagine how living near the Delhi border would provide a unique vantage point for viewing these travellers,as silent observors or by-standers. It was only when I moved to Gurgaon about 6 years ago, that I started noticing them. I could not ignore them - as you said, the roads are blocked, there is loud music and barefooted men carrying bamboo poles across their shoulders from which hangs a pot of holy water is quite a sight. I am glad you enjoyed the piece and my reflections. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. From: Gulammohammed Sheikh
    Sent: Thursday, May 3, 2012 9:18 AM

    Dear Gopika

    Nilima passed on the message with your comments on 'Kaavad: Home' with the link of Garam Masala Chai. I accessed the longer piece on the blog to [see]that you had keenly observed the works in the October show. Thank you for your comments.

    I tried to post a message in the blog, but could not manage, hence this.

    GM Sheikh

  4. In Pune we see a somewhat similar event - the warkaris making their annual pilgrimage to see Vithoba at Pandharpur. They pass through Pune on their way through the Western Ghats, dancing and singing in the rain, camping out till they reach their destination days after they leave their villages.

    What amazing annual customs we have in India - all bound by simple faith.

    1. Thank you Savita for sharing this ritual. I must look it up. Most interesting.