Sanjhi artist Jaishree Pankaj goes snip, snip as she creates wonders with paper

It is a typical jharokha jutting out from a façade of a haveli at Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. With a blend of Mughal and Rajasthani architecture, the decorative window has pyramidal roofs with jaalis for inmates to peep from inside. As you watch the beauty in brown in awe, its creator Jaishree Pankaj walks in with a smile. “Can you guess what it is made of,” she asks us and we look closely. It is neither a painting nor made of thermocol. “It is just paper,” replies Jaishree with a smile.

Sixty-three-year-old Jaishree is used to these kinds of encounters as her creations have baffled people. “When they get to know that it is made of paper, they refuse to believe,” says Jaishree. As an eight-year-old, she saw her grandfather using paper stencils to decorate the swings and spaces in front of Lord Krishna. “He would create Krishna Leela, Raas Leela and Govardhan Leela and I would observe the way he would cut the paper by keeping it on a banana leaf,” she recalls. With a vivid memory and imagination in her mind, Jaishree took a paper and a pair of scissors and a Sanjhi artist was born. “There has not been a single day when I have not cut a paper. It is an addiction for me. When someone handles a paper carelessly, I get angry. I tell them: ‘Don’t throw paper, they are so useful,” she says.

Sanjhi, the ancient form of paper cutting came into spotlight in Hyderabad as Jaishree began her artistic journey. A royal jharokha created out of a paper is in contrast to a serene Krishna mandir. She collects wedding cards and first paints the paper according to the colour of her liking. The painting too is balanced with light and dark shades so that it gives an effect of wood. She uses earthen colours like brown, ivory and sandalwood (“My grandchildren tell me these are dull and that I should go for more bright colours like reds.”) Then, with a pair of scissors, she starts cutting the design of her choice. “I don’t draw the design. I just go snip, snip,” she laughs.

In one corner of her open kitchen in her house in Domalguda is her workstation. You walk around the house and every wall is adorned with a panel. In the last 40 years, she has created jharokhas, peacocks, deities, Krishna Leelas and abstract concepts. Her creations are as diverse as her themes and every jaali in a jharokha has a different design. She has even given a 3D effect to some of her panels.

Yet all through there is one common factor — her love towards Lord Krishna. With the peacock as her favourite motif (she can create peacocks of different sizes with scissors in a matter of seconds), she speaks about shraddha and how Srinathji is her inspiration. “He showers me with creativity and does everything for me. I believe this is my seva to God,” she says and continues, “The Nathdwara temple is like a temple of art. Be it the shringaar, phool maala or colourful patterns adorning the floor… the whole experience is very artistic.”

Jaishree held her first exhibition in 1977 after her three children were born. “There were 55 pieces on display and the exhibition was held at Kala Bhavan. The then Governor D.J. Diwan came with his family to see the exhibits,” she recalls.

Sanjhi art is a painstakingly laborious process and every big panel of hers takes around six to eight months to create. She doesn’t hold exhibitions regularly but whenever she does, there have been admirers. Besides Hyderabad, she has held exhibitions in Mumbai (her exhibition at Salar Jung museum concluded recently). “In ’91, governor Krishnakant and his wife Suman visited my exhibition at Hotel Sarovar. They planned to spend only half-an-hour at the venue but were so impressed with the display that they ended up spending two hours,” she remembers.

She has converted this ancient craft into an art but rues there are not many students of Sanjhi. “My grandchildren go ‘wow’ and ‘superb’ when they see my pieces but cannot sit through the process. My daughter can do a little and my granddaughter can make flower motifs but not much. Patience and concentration is paramount for learning Sanjhi and one should be willing to practice it. Paper is a tender medium and one has to be very careful while cutting it,” she says.

Jaishree feels some galleries do not give the work its due. “Some people have told me that it is just a craft and not an art. They also find it very traditional and not contemporary.”

With seven grandchildren, this grandmother looks back at her own life with an air of contentment. Having studied in Gujarati School and finished her graduation in Kothi Women’s college, and settled here after marriage, her face lights up when she talks about “nawabon ka shahar Hyderabad. Poori duniya ghoomliya par Hyderabad jaisa kahin nahin. Bombay is good as there are many art lovers who appreciate different kinds of art but still Hyderabad is home,” she says with a smile.

As we leave, Jaishree takes a paper and pair of scissors to create a design. So, next time, you see a paper lying on the floor, pick it up, there might be a marvel in the making.