National Award winner Ram Soni demonstrates Sanjhi, an ancient art form to craft lovers in Coimbatore

Artist Ram Soni speaks in measured tones. You have to strain your ears to hear him. “He has hardly spoken for the last four days as he only speaks Hindi and we don't have much Hindi,” says Lakshmi Ramachandran, President of Crafts Council of Tamil Nadu that has invited him to hold a workshop in Coimbatore.

But today, there are two of us who speak his language, and he opens up. Soni is custodian of an ancient art form that his family has been practising for at least 350 years. Ajay, Vijay, Mohan, Ram, Shyam and Sanjay, his brothers, cousins and uncles, are perhaps the only ones who still practise this art.

Called Sanjhi, it flourished as far back as the 16th and 17th Century, if you go by history. If you go by myth, it is believed that Radha covered the walls of her house with this art for the enjoyment of her beloved Krishna.

From father to son

“Sanjhi came to decorate Vaishnav temples,” explains Ram Soni. Motifs drawn from the life of Krishna became the inspiration. Paper stencils were made and they were used to make rangolis on temple walls and floors. “It is a languishing art,” he says and it is found in only a few temples today.

As he speaks, not for a moment does Ram Soni take his eyes off the paper in his hand. With a pair of small iron scissors he goes snip, snip, snip, leaving behind a cut-out of a tree with a magnificent filigree of hundreds and hundreds of leaves.

Ram Soni has been creating these works from as far back as he can remember. “For 10 years I was only allowed to watch from a distance and make the drawings.” His dad didn't allow him anywhere near the scissors. And even when he did, he was critical of his son's efforts. “I would get really irritated,” says Soni. But he admits that even after 30-odd years of the craft, his generation of Sanjhi artists barely come up to the standards of their predecessors. “We can only achieve 20-30 per cent of what the earlier generations did,” he says.

Some of the ladies who are taking part in the workshop look rather abashed at this. They have come to his table to show him their handwork. Ram Soni has given them a drawing of a squirrel with three lines on its back and they have to reproduce that. He is an encouraging guru. Over the last four days the ladies have picked up enough Hindi to understand when he says kindly, “Not every squirrel can look the same, just as no two human beings look the same. So you don't have to make it look like my sketch.”

From a plastic folder, Ram Soni extricates some works of art. A few of them are laminated. They are from Mughal times, he says. There is Urdu script on the backs of some of these yellowed papers. They have ornate borders, single motifs, butterflies, paisleys, bullock carts, people and gorgeous trees.

Ram Soni says that, while he could easily sell them, it is his dream to start a Sanjhi museum. He has shown his work at the Nehru Centre in London in 2000. He won the National Award in 2002.

Since the use of this art as temple art has dwindled, Ram Soni says he and other Sanjhi artists now make lamp shades, screens and other decorative items. He has moved from Mathura and now practises his art in Alwar, Rajasthan.

“Traditionally, only the men do this art work,” says Ram Soni. But his daughter has shown interest in it too. While he refuses to let her handle the scissors, he does watch her surreptitiously while she draws. “I know she fiddles around with my paper, pencils and scissors when I am not around,” he smiles.