Art, Indian Art, Interview

Discovering Historic Phad Art with Smita Aloni

Vibrant, ancient and detailed – are some of the synonyms that describe Phad paintings of Rajasthan, India. Made on a long piece of cloth or canvas called Phad, these paintings depict heroic folk tales of local deities – Pabuji and Devnarayan. The stories on these scroll paintings were inspired from mythological books and were used as mobile temples. Dubai-based phad artist Smita Aloni has been ardently creating this rare and fast dwindling art form for over two decades. She has exhibited her collection of paintings at various art spaces around the world; conducted workshops and taught students. In this interview she speaks about her association with this unique art form and the process behind its creation.

Pabuji The King depicted in a Phad painting

What is the cultural significance of Phad art? Take us back to its historic roots?

Phad art originated around 700 years ago in the Bhilwara region in Rajasthan. These miniature paintings made on scrolls called Phad convey stories of valour of a local king during those times called Pabuji. The phad cloth is used as a visual aid for mobile temples that nomadic tribesmen travelled with while singing songs and narrating stories of Pabuji’s bravery.  Usually a priest — Bhopa  and  his wife Bhopi — would sing these mythological hymns. They used to commission artists from the Joshi family to make the Phad art. Shree Lal  Joshi and his son Kalyan are earnestly carrying on this traditional art form to date.

How did you get associated with Phad art?

In 2001 I got an opportunity to witness a phad painting being made by award-winning artist and my guru Kalyan Joshi. I was intensely attracted to the colour and style of the painting and instantly  decided to learn and pursue this art form. I consider myself still a student forever uncovering various facets of these paintings.

Tell us about the unique artistic format of Phad painting, materials used and style of art?

Phad art follows a unique style. From the canvas to the traditional colours  everything is made by the artist. For the canvas a white cotton cloth is soaked overnight in cold water and kept for drying during the morning. While it is still moist, it is dipped into a homemade starch solution (made from flour and water) and then left to dry in bright sunlight. The cloth is then stretched and one part of it is polished with smooth glass to produce a shiny texture. Once this canvas is ironed from the opposite end it is ready to be painted on.

All the colors that we use are natural and derived from stones such as red clay to make the colour brown and indigo for blue. Due to non-availability of natural stones and colours we now also paint with synthetic colours.  Creating a phad painting takes years of practice and patience. It’s important to also have a steady hand in line drawing.

Share with us a repertoire of your work and artistic milestones?

My journey with Phad art has seen a steady growth in the last two decades. I developed my artistic skills not only by actively painting and practising the art but also by teaching art in schools. While living in Qatar, from 2001 to 2017, I participated in various exhibitions and workshops. Dubai too offers a fantastic platform to artists. In a short period of time being in Dubai since 2018 I have participated in several exhibitions including World Art in 2019 and the Hotel Show, 2019. I have received a great response for my Phad paintings from the artist community in Dubai. One of my biggest milestones was representing Phad on the international platform at the Pechakucha Art Festival, Doha, in 2005. The response to my art at this festival was phenomenal.

Did you always train to be an artist? What does art mean to you?

I have done post graduation in chemistry and had not trained to become an artist. But right from my childhood I was inclined towards painting and drawing. My mother was very supportive and encouraged me in my creative pursuits. Art for me an expression of myself and the me-time that I spent doing what I am passionate about.

What has been your most memorable artistic experience to date?

That would be when I participated in the ArtShopping Expo exhibition in Louvre, Paris in 2019. I received an amazing response from art lovers, fellow painters, curators and art critics for my paintings.

Where are the challenges in keeping this art form alive and what are your own professional plans?

Traditional Phad cloth is about five meters of scroll which is not affordable for most buyers. It is also difficult to display it, so now it is available in smaller sizes. To keep this tradition alive is our responsibility. I do it by practising the art, by teaching it to the younger generations and also by supporting local craftsmen by buying phad art. As today there are several cheaper options for art available people tend to sway towards them forgetting that such handmade art represents our valuable culture. So, in future I plan to tie-up with craftsmen, who engage in handmade traditional crafts to help them sustain their skills and livelihood.

Take us through a day in your life? 

My day is almost the same, follows a routine, except when I am travelling, sounds quite boring but I like it that way. I wake up early around 4: 45 am to walk my dog, to do yoga and pranayama. Besides cooking I love gardening along with my cat and dog pottering around. I have also recently started learning Hindustani classical music, so I practice that every day religiously and of course painting on phad is the most essential part of my day.

More about Smita and her work on her website:

Art, Dubai Events, Interview

Connecting art and history

Sadaqar P Q (1)

Driving through the scenic roads of Fujairah on family holidays Sadaqat Pervaiz often stopped enroute to admire the historic Al Bidiya Mosque. The diminutive rock and mud structure known as the oldest existing house of worship in the emirates held a special place in his heart. Over the years he captured its rustic charm by clicking innumerable pictures till the artist in him decided to pay the ultimate ode to his muse with strokes of paint on a canvas.

The allure of portraying a slice of the bygone era through his art led him to paint a number of historical sites of the UAE. Curated as part of his Heritage Collection these paintings will be showcased in his upcoming solo art exhibition – Back to Basics – at Gallery 76 in Dubai International Art Centre from June 22 to 29, 2019. Forty incredible artworks from Sadaqat’s collection will be on display. Besides Al Bidiya five other heritage sites are part of the exhibition. These include the Al Bastakiya Mosque, which was first established at the end of the 19th century by textile and pearl merchants, the Al-Hayl Castle, once used as the headquarters for Fujairah’s ruling family, Al Jazirah Al Hamra — an old abandoned town in Ras Al Khaimah considered by experts to be one of the best places to study traditional coral-stone architecture, the Khor Kalba Village and the iconic RAF Sharjah

Al Hayl Castle
Al Hayl Castle

Well known as a celebrated landscape artist in his native Pakistan, Sadaqat has lived in the UAE for over two decades. A deep appreciation of the local culture and the untouched nature of the historical sites of the UAE inspired Sadaqat to paint them. “It was almost like stepping back in time and that feeling is what I hoped to convey through my paintings. There is no shortage of inspiration in the UAE as all the seven emirates have a wealth of historic sites.”

He believes in using art as a form of documentation to preserve culture and history. “History is a bridge to the past and art is a bridge to connecting with people. Both leave you feeling like you have learned something valuable with a new appreciation and outlook towards life,” says Sadaqat.

Photography is an integral part of his artistic process. “Often the journey begins when I hear about a site from someone or find it over the Internet. After I drive to the location, I carefully examine the details and take several shots of the forts and castles from different angles. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to most of the places do not have conditions that permit one to paint on site. So, the photos I click become the premise for most of my paintings,” he says.

Al Bastakiya Mosque
Al Bastakiya Mosque

Through his art he hopes to draw attention to the incredible historical restoration work done in the UAE. Most of all, he wants to ignite a desire in people to visit some of these locations, to learn more about them and then share their experiences.

Al Jazirah Al Hamra
Al Jazirah al Hamra

Born in 1956 in Wazirabad, Pakistan, Sadaqat grew up in an art inspired environment. His father, a government officer, was also a water colour artist. This early encouragement led him to pursue a formal art education in the National College of Arts in Lahore. Under the mentorship of a famous landscape artist Sadaqat developed a distinct personal style.

But family circumstances paved way for him to move to Sharjah in 1991. Soon after he took on the job of an art director at the Expo Centre in Sharjah. For the next 18 years he spear headed the formation of the company’s first art department. It was only when both his children completed their education he felt it was time to go back to art.

Water colours and oil paints are his preferred medium today. “Sometimes I like to experiment with charcoals, chalk and coloured paper. But most of my landscapes are in water colour and some of my portraits are in charcoal and chalk,” he points out.

Back to Basics is Sadaqat’s first solo exhibition in Dubai at DIAC from June 22 to 29, 2019.

Art, Interview

An insight into the art of Khalid Mezaina

Bold illustrations showcasing contemporary and culturally-inspired designs is the forte of Emirati artist Khalid Mezaina’s work. Centered around local traditions his art largely includes hand-drawn elements. He has a Bachelor’s degree in visual communication from American University of Sharjah and a Master’s in textiles from Rhode Island School of Design, USA. Khalid is an independent artist, illustrator and graphic designer, who has participated in several exhibitions and has some iconic projects to his credit. In 2016, he was commissioned by ADMAF (Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation) to create a series of illustrations called cafeterias of the UAE, depicting a slice of the vibrant shawarma shops and cafeteria culture in the emirates. At Jam Jar, in Al Serkal Avenue, he presented a project on talismans. With Sharjah Art Foundation he curated a workshop called Tapestries exploring the trends and history of tapestries in Sharjah’s old textile souk. From illustrating the walls of a music store in a mall to his  textile project on wearable capes Khalid’s artistic vision is diverse and deeply personal.

At the recent Ramadan Flow Talk series Khalid shared his work and his thoughts on what went behind their creation. Here is an excerpt from the interview he gave me for middleeastmasala.


What does art mean to you?

I think art is about having something to say and also speaking to anyone out there that shares the same sentiments as you.

How would you describe your style of work?

I would describe my style of work as illustrative. I illustrate things that I see, things that interest me or things that I would like to talk about.

Is there a common artistic thread that we can find in your designs?

I like to incorporate something hand drawn in all my work. Everything starts as a hand drawing which is then scanned and enhanced digitally. Be it an artwork for exhibition purpose, a design for a pattern layout, or work for a client — everything starts with a hand drawing in my sketchbook.

wind towers
Traditional Wind Towers

Do you feel it’s time we broke stereotypical representations of the region in art — for instance the overuse of lanterns and camels?

There is a common tendency to appropriate or recycle stereotypical visuals to depict the region. For it to be less predictable, I think the challenge is figuring out a way to use these common motifs and imagery in a fresh way. I personally do not mind the use of certain imagery that is a direct representation of the culture or region we’re in. I just think what makes something stand out is not copying something that’s already been done before.

How do you represent iconic cultural motifs of the Emirates through your art?

I create work that represents my experiences of belonging to the Emirates. I try to create visuals that are contemporary and relevant to the times so that my work does not look redundant or appear to be similar to what something someone has seen before. Artists do tend to fall in this trap where they use certain motifs the same way. I hope my use of cultural motifs represent a different perspective that is based on my understanding of what it means to be from the Emirates, which can be a unique take compared to others.

Shops in the emirates

Take us through the journey of documenting the designing of the ‘cafeterias of the UAE’ project that you did for Abu Dhabi Music and Art foundation in 2016. ‘Cafeterias of the UAE’ was an illustration series for ADMAF’s 2016 exhibition ‘Portrait of a Nation’. The exhibit showcased different perspectives of the United Arab Emirates through the works of the selected artists. I thought a perfect idea to represent the Emirates was through the cafeterias found all over the country. Emiratis, expats and everyone in between flock to these cafeterias daily for an affordable sandwich, a humorously titled juice, or a plastic cup of sugared, steaming hot chai. These cafeterias are iconic structures in the UAE’s cultural and urban landscape. The final result was a series of six illustrated cafeterias that caught my attention as I drove around finding them.

Cafeterias of the UAE

What are your favourite cafeterias in town — any childhood memories that make them special?

I do not have a favourite cafeteria. But the word cafeteria instantly brings a flood of memories from high school and university days, when my friends and I would walk or drive to one close by after classes, to get a quick (affordable) bite to eat and chat together.

What are your current projects?

In the lead up to summer, I am trying to take things easy. It has been a year since I moved back home after completing my master’s and I have been mainly occupied with commissioned work and client based projects. Now I would like to be playful in the studio to experiment and work on projects for myself. I am currently completing a couple of client based illustrations including a mini comic with a friend. I am also scheduled to teach a series of workshops for young creatives at Tashkeel and Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.

Lastly, what do you want people to take away from your art?

Honestly, at the end of the day, I hope the audience would relate to my work in some way. I hope it would make people connect to the stories or narratives conveyed through them, they would relate to the messages shared, and feel happy and positive.

Khalid blogs at His brand Krossbreed has a range of t-shirts, prints and stationary.