6. Painting a Kavaad




Between receiving my wooden storyteller’s box and the exhibition date, I had a whole two months, during which I had a three week trip to the United States, the launch of a crowd-funding campaign, and a book publication. So, I decided to dedicate 10 entire days to the kavaad prior to the inauguration date. It was cutting it close, but I thought the time pressure would set me off into a creative process that was intense and complete to say the least. What happened was magical and sleepless. I spent 20 hour days working in my kitchen. It began with rough story boards, sketches and post-its.


My kitchen table and I were covered in paint. I worked quickly and intuitively, ebetering the story entirely. I was the elephant, I was the crocodile and the snake. I became each character that I painted.


My lack of sleep seemed to give me a sense of courage and strength to tackle the story that I hadn’t seemed to find before. And all the while the hours passed and it was almost time to deliver the piece.


5. Making the Box


In the aftermath of Diwali, I began desperately to look for ways to make the actual box. I am not a carpenter, and though can be very meticulous with my hands, I have vague memories of almost sawing my finger’s off in workshop sessions in art school many years ago. After realising that the option of importing an unpainted kavaad from India would be tricky, I started to look for carpenters in Madrid crazy enough to set out on this venture with me. I met Ana Perez on Calle Madera (wood street) and fell in love with her. In parallel we began to study the structure of the kavaad: I was determining the structure based on the narrative requirements of the story, and she was analysing the technical difficulties of the making and assemblage of the box. Through the summer, we met and worked out the wrinkles, and all the while, I began a story board of the tale in a paper-theatre format.

It seemed a bit absurd at the time, that I would make a theatre-book in order to map out the story, but I trusted my stubborn instinct and my constant desire to work more than necessary and spent a lot of time drawing and cutting out the story.

In the meantime, I also began playing with acrylics and would panels to create a visual vocabulary that I could use on the kavaad. I decided to use a variation of the traditional kavaad palette, which is always in a fiery red with primary colours and black line.




In the meantime, at Maderas Perez, Ana was finishing up the wooden piece. The day I went to pick it up was something of a celebration. She had thrown in a few surprises: decorative friezes, a secret drawer for tips, little handles on the inner temple doors. Now, I just had to figure out how I was going to tell the story, and began to paint it on the kavaad.



4. Studying Kavaads

In autumn of last year, I began studying kavaads and began seriously wondering how in the world I was going to make one. I had never before made a three dimensional story-box. I had never painted on wood. I hadn’t a clue about the structure of a kavaad or how the story unfolds. I thought I may put off the project, but then Juliana Salcedo, Esther Gomez (colleagues from the workshop) and Gustavo Puerta (our maestro) got together and somehow convinced me to take part in a collective exhibition in the autumn of 2015 at the Cala de Chodes.

I panicked. I had a lot of ongoing professional and personal projects on my plate. At the same time I knew that if I didn’t commit to a deadline, I would never finish the kavaad. So I said yes, knowing that the following year would be utter madness. And it was.

Through the madness though, some wonderful and magical things happened.

First of all, only weeks after our first meeting, the exhibition Akhyan travelled from India to the Teatro Valle Inclan in Madrid.  What I thought to be an exhibit of masks from india turned out to include a collection of storytelling formats such as phads (scrolls), shadow puppets and kavaads. I visited the tiny space several times and upon Gustavo’s suggestion, asked permission to settle myself down on the floor and sketch one of the kavaad’s on display in detail.

Here are some photos and sketches.


Then, a few weeks later, my favorite festival of the year approached. Diwali is the festival of lights, and is celebrated by clearing out all that is old, broken and negative and welcoming the new, positive and energetic. I decided that if I made my diwali greeting based on the structure of a kavaad it may help me get over my inhibitions.

It seemed to work! I began to understand how the kavaad worked. Kavaads traditionally tell religious and epic stories from hindu mythology. There were two accordeon like doors which were each made up of at least 3 panels each. One door closed over the other and when each one was completely opened, the entire story was revealed on both sides: front and back. The story is told visually using small vignettes with images and sometimes sanskrit or hindi text.


The inside of the kavaad always has an inner temple with double doors that usually have guardians of the temple painted on each side. In the temple is the shrine to the god or godess (the protagonist) of the story.

So I began thinking about my little elephant’s child again, and about how in my interpretation of the story although he is just an elephant, there is something godlike about him that only the snake knows about and that he unveils when he undergoes his transformation and gets his trunk.

My diwali greeting was in a paper fold-out of the inner temple. On the outer doors I drew myself and my husband Juan as guardians of the temple. Inside I drew the elephant’s child with a full trunk and as the embodiment of the Lord Ganesha. In the inner doors I drew scenes and details from the story.

I printed the work on little colored cards for all of my guests and had a wonderful diwali.


(As I write this entry, a year later, Diwali has just come and gone again, only a few days ago…Happy diwali to you and yours full of light and energy.)

3. Making the story mine

Although I had already fallen in love with the original story. Through the course, La lectura del ilustrador (The illustrator’s reading), we were invited to appropriate the story. What struck me most from my first reading was the wonderful companionship between the elephant’s child and  the snake. It made me wonder…why would a snake help a baby elephant? is it a coincidence that the very shape of the snake is the part that the elephant is missing (his trunk) and obtains at the end of the story? does the snake have hidden motives to help the elephant? what is it about the elephant that moves him to act against his nature?

I was fascinated by their link and thought it would be interesting to explore the possibility that instead of their encounter happening right before the conflict of the story, that the snake should serve as the protector of this very special Elephant’s child from his birth. I remembered stories of hindu mythology that I had been told by my grandparents as a child and remembered the cobra that cradles baby Lord Krishna through the storm as he floats down the river in a basket his parents put him in to protect him from being killed by the king. I began to imagine a whole parallel story in which the wise snake already knows that this baby elephant will be a transgressor of his time and is sent to care for him and help him achieve his greatness.



All these contemplations made me think about stories of the nagas (snake in sanskrit) in hindu mythology. So I began to research and found that repeatedly, nagas protect gods and goddesses. Then all kinds of wonderful coincidences began to happen. I also found that in many stories, Vishnu (one of the main 3 deities) protects humans and maintains order in the world. While he sleeps, Vishnu is protected by Shesha, king of the serpents called Nagas. This illustration shows Shesha supporting Vishnu and his wife Lakshimi over the cosmic ocean.

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I also found the story of Gajendra Moksha. The elephant Gajendra tries to quench its thirst in a pool of water, demon in the form of a crocodile sinks its teeth into one of its legs. After his struggling, Gajendra seeks Lord Vishnu’s intervention, the lord kills the crocodile and sets the elephant free. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I imagine that Kipling may have used these elements as inspiration for his story.


So once I managed to digest all this wonderful information, I began to construct the elements of my version. My Elephant’s Child would be somewhat of a god, but would not know it until he undergoes his transformation. The snake would know it from before his birth and thus  care for him discreetly, watch over him and give him the courage and strength on his quest.

Now that my story was clear, I began doing what I love most…cutting! I cut the setting of the story, a little Elephant’s child and began to play around with my ideas.



2. The Elephant’s Child

Before any of the work began, what happened at first was that I fell completely in love with the Story of the Elephant’s Child. So before going on any further I am including it in this post so you can read and enjoy it. The text as well as illustrations included are by Rudyard Kipling.



IN the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn’t pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant–a new Elephant–an Elephant’s Child–who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. And he lived in Africa, and he filled all Africa with his ‘satiable curtiosities. He asked his tall aunt, the Ostrich, why her tail-feathers grew just so, and his tall aunt the Ostrich spanked him with her hard, hard claw. He asked his tall uncle, the Giraffe, what made his skin spotty, and his tall uncle, the Giraffe, spanked him with his hard, hard hoof. And still he was full of ‘satiable curtiosity! He asked his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, why her eyes were red, and his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, spanked him with her broad, broad hoof; and he asked his hairy uncle, the Baboon, why melons tasted just so, and his hairy uncle, the Baboon, spanked him with his hairy, hairy paw. And still he was full of ‘satiable curtiosity! He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of ‘satiable curtiosity!
One fine morning in the middle of the Precession of the Equinoxes this ‘satiable Elephant’s Child asked a new fine question that he had never asked before. He asked, ‘What does the Crocodile have for dinner?’ Then everybody said, ‘Hush!’ in a loud and dretful tone, and they spanked him immediately and directly, without stopping, for a long time.
By and by, when that was finished, he came upon Kolokolo Bird sitting in the middle of a wait-a-bit thorn-bush, and he said, ‘My father has spanked me, and my mother has spanked me; all my aunts and uncles have spanked me for my ‘satiable curtiosity; and still I want to know what the Crocodile has for dinner!’
Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, ‘Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.’
That very next morning, when there was nothing left of the Equinoxes, because the Precession had preceded according to precedent, this ‘satiable Elephant’s Child took a hundred pounds of bananas (the little short red kind), and a hundred pounds of sugar-cane (the long purple kind), and seventeen melons (the greeny-crackly kind), and said to all his dear families, ‘Goodbye. I am going to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, to find out what the Crocodile has for dinner.’ And they all spanked him once more for luck, though he asked them most politely to stop.
Then he went away, a little warm, but not at all astonished, eating melons, and throwing the rind about, because he could not pick it up.
He went from Graham’s Town to Kimberley, and from Kimberley to Khama’s Country, and from Khama’s Country he went east by north, eating melons all the time, till at last he came to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, precisely as Kolokolo Bird had said.
Now you must know and understand, O Best Beloved, that till that very week, and day, and hour, and minute, this ‘satiable Elephant’s Child had never seen a Crocodile, and did not know what one was like. It was all his ‘satiable curtiosity.
The first thing that he found was a Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake curled round a rock.
”Scuse me,’ said the Elephant’s Child most politely, ‘but have you seen such a thing as a Crocodile in these promiscuous parts?’
‘Have I seen a Crocodile?’ said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, in a voice of dretful scorn. ‘What will you ask me next?’


”Scuse me,’ said the Elephant’s Child, ‘but could you kindly tell me what he has for dinner?’
Then the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake uncoiled himself very quickly from the rock, and spanked the Elephant’s Child with his scalesome, flailsome tail.
‘That is odd,’ said the Elephant’s Child, ‘because my father and my mother, and my uncle and my aunt, not to mention my other aunt, the Hippopotamus, and my other uncle, the Baboon, have all spanked me for my ‘satiable curtiosity–and I suppose this is the same thing.
So he said good-bye very politely to the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, and helped to coil him up on the rock again, and went on, a little warm, but not at all astonished, eating melons, and throwing the rind about, because he could not pick it up, till he trod on what he thought was a log of wood at the very edge of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees.
But it was really the Crocodile, O Best Beloved, and the Crocodile winked one eye–like this!
”Scuse me,’ said the Elephant’s Child most politely, ‘but do you happen to have seen a Crocodile in these promiscuous parts?’
Then the Crocodile winked the other eye, and lifted half his tail out of the mud; and the Elephant’s Child stepped back most politely, because he did not wish to be spanked again.
‘Come hither, Little One,’ said the Crocodile. ‘Why do you ask such things?’
”Scuse me,’ said the Elephant’s Child most politely, ‘but my father has spanked me, my mother has spanked me, not to mention my tall aunt, the Ostrich, and my tall uncle, the Giraffe, who can kick ever so hard, as well as my broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, and my hairy uncle, the Baboon, and including the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, with the scalesome, flailsome tail, just up the bank, who spanks harder than any of them; and so, if it’s quite all the same to you, I don’t want to be spanked any more.’ 019

    ‘Come hither, Little One,’ said the Crocodile, ‘for I am the Crocodile,’ and he wept crocodile-tears to show it was quite true.
Then the Elephant’s Child grew all breathless, and panted, and kneeled down on the bank and said, ‘You are the very person I have been looking for all these long days. Will you please tell me what you have for dinner?’
‘Come hither, Little One,’ said the Crocodile, ‘and I’ll whisper.’
Then the Elephant’s Child put his head down close to the Crocodile’s musky, tusky mouth, and the Crocodile caught him by his little nose, which up to that very week, day, hour, and minute, had been no bigger than a boot, though much more useful.
‘I think, said the Crocodile–and he said it between his teeth, like this–‘I think to-day I will begin with Elephant’s Child!’
At this, O Best Beloved, the Elephant’s Child was much annoyed, and he said, speaking through his nose, like this, ‘Led go! You are hurtig be!’
Then the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake scuffled down from the bank and said, ‘My young friend, if you do not now, immediately and instantly, pull as hard as ever you can, it is my opinion that your acquaintance in the large-pattern leather ulster’ (and by this he meant the Crocodile) ‘will jerk you into yonder limpid stream before you can say Jack Robinson.’
This is the way Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snakes always talk.
Then the Elephant’s Child sat back on his little haunches, and pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and his nose began to stretch. And the Crocodile floundered into the water, making it all creamy with great sweeps of his tail, and he pulled, and pulled, and pulled.
And the Elephant’s Child’s nose kept on stretching; and the Elephant’s Child spread all his little four legs and pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and his nose kept on stretching; and the Crocodile threshed his tail like an oar, and he pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and at each pull the Elephant’s Child’s nose grew longer and longer–and it hurt him hijjus!
Then the Elephant’s Child felt his legs slipping, and he said through his nose, which was now nearly five feet long, ‘This is too butch for be!’
Then the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake came down from the bank, and knotted himself in a double-clove-hitch round the Elephant’s Child’s hind legs, and said, ‘Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck’ (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), ‘will permanently vitiate your future career.
That is the way all Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snakes always talk.
So he pulled, and the Elephant’s Child pulled, and the Crocodile pulled; but the Elephant’s Child and the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake pulled hardest; and at last the Crocodile let go of the Elephant’s Child’s nose with a plop that you could hear all up and down the Limpopo.
Then the Elephant’s Child sat down most hard and sudden; but first he was careful to say ‘Thank you’ to the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake; and next he was kind to his poor pulled nose, and wrapped it all up in cool banana leaves, and hung it in the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo to cool.
‘What are you doing that for?’ said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake.
”Scuse me,’ said the Elephant’s Child, ‘but my nose is badly out of shape, and I am waiting for it to shrink.
‘Then you will have to wait a long time, said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake. ‘Some people do not know what is good for them.’
The Elephant’s Child sat there for three days waiting for his nose to shrink. But it never grew any shorter, and, besides, it made him squint. For, O Best Beloved, you will see and understand that the Crocodile had pulled it out into a really truly trunk same as all Elephants have to-day.
At the end of the third day a fly came and stung him on the shoulder, and before he knew what he was doing he lifted up his trunk and hit that fly dead with the end of it.
”Vantage number one!’ said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake. ‘You couldn’t have done that with a mere-smear nose. Try and eat a little now.’
Before he thought what he was doing the Elephant’s Child put out his trunk and plucked a large bundle of grass, dusted it clean against his fore-legs, and stuffed it into his own mouth.
‘Vantage number two!’ said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake. ‘You couldn’t have done that with a mear-smear nose. Don’t you think the sun is very hot here?’
‘It is,’ said the Elephant’s Child, and before he thought what he was doing he schlooped up a schloop of mud from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo, and slapped it on his head, where it made a cool schloopy-sloshy mud-cap all trickly behind his ears.
‘Vantage number three!’ said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake. ‘You couldn’t have done that with a mere-smear nose. Now how do you feel about being spanked again?’
”Scuse me,’ said the Elephant’s Child, ‘but I should not like it at all.’
‘How would you like to spank somebody?’ said the Bi- Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake.
‘I should like it very much indeed,’ said the Elephant’s Child.
‘Well,’ said the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, ‘you will find that new nose of yours very useful to spank people with.’
‘Thank you,’ said the Elephant’s Child, ‘I’ll remember that; and now I think I’ll go home to all my dear families and try.’
So the Elephant’s Child went home across Africa frisking and whisking his trunk. When he wanted fruit to eat he pulled fruit down from a tree, instead of waiting for it to fall as he used to do. When he wanted grass he plucked grass up from the ground, instead of going on his knees as he used to do. When the flies bit him he broke off the branch of a tree and used it as fly-whisk; and he made himself a new, cool, slushy-squshy mud-cap whenever the sun was hot. When he felt lonely walking through Africa he sang to himself down his trunk, and the noise was louder than several brass bands.
He went especially out of his way to find a broad Hippopotamus (she was no relation of his), and he spanked her very hard, to make sure that the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake had spoken the truth about his new trunk. The rest of the time he picked up the melon rinds that he had dropped on his way to the Limpopo–for he was a Tidy Pachyderm.
One dark evening he came back to all his dear families, and he coiled up his trunk and said, ‘How do you do?’ They were very glad to see him, and immediately said, ‘Come here and be spanked for your ‘satiable curtiosity.’
‘Pooh,’ said the Elephant’s Child. ‘I don’t think you peoples know anything about spanking; but I do, and I’ll show you.’ Then he uncurled his trunk and knocked two of his dear brothers head over heels. ‘O Bananas!’ said they, ‘where did you learn that trick, and what have you done to your nose?’
‘I got a new one from the Crocodile on the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River,’ said the Elephant’s Child. ‘I asked him what he had for dinner, and he gave me this to keep.’
‘It looks very ugly,’ said his hairy uncle, the Baboon.
‘It does,’ said the Elephant’s Child. ‘But it’s very useful,’ and he picked up his hairy uncle, the Baboon, by one hairy leg, and hove him into a hornet’s nest.
Then that bad Elephant’s Child spanked all his dear families for a long time, till they were very warm and greatly astonished. He pulled out his tall Ostrich aunt’s tail-feathers; and he caught his tall uncle, the Giraffe, by the hind-leg, and dragged him through a thorn-bush; and he shouted at his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, and blew bubbles into her ear when she was sleeping in the water after meals; but he never let any one touch Kolokolo Bird.
At last things grew so exciting that his dear families went off one by one in a hurry to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, to borrow new noses from the Crocodile. When they came back nobody spanked anybody any more; and ever since that day, O Best Beloved, all the Elephants you will ever see, besides all those that you won’t, have trunks precisely like the trunk of the ‘satiable Elephant’s Child.

I Keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine till five.
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views:
I know a person small–
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ‘em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes–
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!


1. Storyteller’s Box


In India a storyteller’s box is called a Kavaad. It is a three-dimensional form of traditional Indian storytelling. The box is made of folded panels that unfold to reveal a story or a series of stories about a character. Traditional Kavads tell stories about Gods and Goddesses and so the storytelling box is also a moveable temple, revering a particular God whose altar  or shrine can be found hidden behind the inner doors of the box.

So why am I writing a blog about Kavaads? Besides of course the fact that they are beautiful and extremely interesting objects? Well it’s a long story and it all began when I signed up for a course a Gustavo Puerta’s Escuela Peripatética called La Lectura del Ilustrador in February of 2014. What I thought to be a 4 month workshop turned into a long term project, at times obsessive and all consuming.

The course began by reading lots of classic tales, studying their structures and analysing them. The idea was to choose one story and spend the duration of the course working on it, appropriating the story and adding to it our own personalised readings of it. We worked with visual tools such as ex-libris and chapter letters at the beginning. Then moved on to work on the characters, for which we turned to Chinese shadows. Then when we had advanced in our own story, we were each assigned a traditional storytelling object. These ranged from altarpieces, kimonos, emakis to my kavaad.

What followed were months of research, a trip to india and a beautiful encounter with a very special carpenter who has built me my very own kavaad. And now, with only a couple of months to go before our collective exhibition, I have decided to write this blog to document all my work until now and everything I have yet to do!

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