The Kaavad storytelling of Rajasthan is an important part of the oral tradition of the regions of Mewar and Marwar. A portable, painted, wooden shrine, it is made by the Kaavad makers (Basayati Suthars) of Bassi, Chittor, for the storytellers (Kaavadiya Bhats or Ravs) of Marwar. The storytellers unfold the multiple panels of the Kaavad as they recite stories and genealogies of their patrons (jajmans) spread across Rajasthan and adjoining states.
The choice of the Kaavad storytelling phenomenon provides a unique opportunity to study an object which has multiple societal and design functions, as well as to examine the intersections between the Kaavad object, the storytelling, performance and its reception. In addition it occasions the documentation and understanding of an important living oral storytelling tradition that has received little attention. The question is what purpose does the Kaavad serve and what it means to the community concerned? The Kaavad recitation includes the narration of stories and genealogies for the patrons by the storyteller simulating an experience of travel; a journey not unlike a pilgrimage. As he recites their genealogies, in a myth making exercise - elevates their status by connecting them to ancestors who are heroes with connections to the divine. The aim of the study is to arrive at an understanding of the role of the designed object, and to investigate how its design contributes to the experience of a pilgrimage and the construction or elevation of identity.
Fieldwork and visual ethnography including film and photography inform the study along with ethnographic methods of observation, interviews and field notes. Three-fold multidisciplinary route and approach to fieldwork is influenced by visual research methods used in design. Fifty-four stories elicited from one storyteller and translated in English indicate a close connection between the stories and lives of the carriers of the Kaavad tradition. Performances by three storytellers recorded in their natural settings offer rich data as do information on methods of making and painting by the makers.
A structural and semiotic approach is used for analyzing the physical, visual and narrative structures of the Kaavad. The analysis reveals a strong connection between the Kaavad recitation and the experience of a pilgrimage; manifested and delivered by the designed Kaavad object and mediated by the storyteller.