Sanjhi, Mathura’s centuries-old temple art, reinvents itself with modern motifs to keep pace with present demand

For craftsmen of traditional art forms, it’s usually not a story of thriving business, and to supplement the family income they have to look for alternate livelihood. For Mathura’s Ram Soni and his family, however, the case has been quite the reverse. An award-winning craftsman of the centuries-old Sanjhi art, a form of paper cutting or stencil design that was traditionally used to make ritualistic rangolis to decorate Mathura’s temples, Mr. Soni’s family members were originally goldsmiths.

“My forefathers used to decorate Vaishnav temple walls and floors with rangoli of Krishna’s motifs using Sanjhi art...they even made rangoli on water,” he says. “But it was more of a passion, of seva [service to the gods]. The priest used to come to our home before festivals and discuss designs because we were good at our handiwork, and my grandfather, father, would go and do it. Our main livelihood, however, remained jewellery making.”

According to Mr. Soni, once a design was made, it was filled with natural colours — gulal for red, turmeric for yellow, flour for white — for the desired rangoli. During the 15-day Shraddh period (Hindu ritual), for instance, stories of Krishna and his life were depicted through rangoli in temples. It is said that Radha used Sanjhi art to woo Krishna.

“Over time, however, the practice of using Sanjhi to decorate temples, waned. But the popularity of the art form remained, and we decided to take it up full time,” Mr. Soni says, adding that they are probably the only family in Mathura still practising the art. The traditional art form has, however, donned a new avatar.

“To suit modern tastes and time, we have adapted Sanjhi to include different designs, mostly inspired by nature, like trees and animals,” Mr. Soni, whose three brothers are also involved in the art, says. Watching him at work, it’s difficult to take the gaze away as he uses his razor sharp skills, literally, to snip away complex designs deftly. The tree, with its numerous branches and leaves, is particularly amazing and in great demand.

“Architects and designers from different cities approach us for our work. They give us geometrical designs to work on; and apart from framing our designs, we have also used Sanjhi art on things like lamp shades, screens, wall hangings, trays.” Keeping up with changing dynamics, they have also started using handmade and recycled paper for their art. He also gets orders from other countries like Japan, U.K., and Bhutan.

Although Mr. Soni’s expertise is well recognised — he won a National Award in 2002, has showcased his work in the Nehru Centre in London, has his goods sold at the Cottage Emporium in Delhi and an artwork displayed at the INA metro station in the Capital, and is regularly invited to various exhibitions and art fairs across the country — he laments the fact that not enough is done by the Uttar Pradesh government to encourage the age-old art form.

“This is why I decided to move to Alwar in Rajasthan to do the marketing myself. My brothers are, however, still in Mathura, and we work together,” he says. He also conducts workshops to teach people about the art.

In a clear tug-of-war between a father’s concern and an artist’s passion, when asked whether his children — a boy and a girl — would continue the family tradition, Mr. Soni says, “Like any other parent I want my children’s future to be secure, and the truth is that without state support, Sanjhi would be a languishing art. I don’t tell my children to learn the art, it’s up to them. But they have shown interest, and play around with my scissors when I am not around.”