Adorning walls and foreheads

Lov Kumar Soni and his uncle Mohan Vermi make sanjhis on rice paper these days. — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

PEOPLE DON'T usually cut their own business card with a pair of scissors before handing it over to a journalist. But Lov Kumar Soni did just that. Even as he answered my questions, the young man cut out a tiny, beautifully-proportioned bird on the top of his card and presented it to me shyly. No wonder the sanjhi artist was one of the youngest persons to win the Crafts Council of India's Kamaladevi Puraskar in 2000. Sanjhi is the art of cutting out stencils on paper, cloth, and other non-metallic material. The art form drew a lot of attention at the recently-concluded festival, Kamala. The event was held at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat to celebrate the birth centenary of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the founder of the Crafts Council of India.

At the exhibition, intricate stencils hung from the walls. Each of them had been painstakingly cut with a pair of small scissors. So precise and structured were some designs that it was hard to believe that they were done freehand, based on the artist's imagination, aided by his rough sketch. Today's child can replicate the same in a jiffy, of course, on computer with a good software package. But in Mathura, children in the Soni family learn to create these marvels on paper from their relatives, even as they listen to the colourful tales of Krishna.

"Sanjhi art has been in our family for generations," said Mohan Vermi, Lov's articulate uncle. Mohan stopped going to school when he was 11, because he had to earn to supplement the family's meagre income. "Except for our art, we knew no other work, and we had just all begun to do any manual work that came our way when the Crafts Council people spotted us. After that, life has been comfortable, thanks to them and to Him."

The mythology goes that Radha started making sanjhis against freshly-plastered cowdung walls with bits of coloured stone, metal foil, and flowers. The other gopikas of Brindavan too made these intricate arrangements to draw the attention of Krishna. Later, people started making stencils of these designs that are all based on the life of Krishna. The stencils are laid on the ground in the evening in temples and coloured powders are filled in.

When the stencil is removed, a beautiful sanjhi remains on the floor. Sanjhis are made on leaves and left to float on the revered Yamuna as well.

Adorning walls and foreheads

They are also made on platters of water. Mohan and his family, along with other pustimargis, still decorate the temples of Mathura with their sanjhi art.

To make traditional arts economically viable, the Crafts Council suggests ways of incorporating form into the mainstream.

"Earlier we just used to make sanjhis on paper of all sizes and sell them as souvenirs in our little shop in Mathura," said Mohan. "But today, we make them on rice paper and cloth, so that they can be used in the making of lamp shades, curtains, and many other household products."

On display at Kamala were Ludo games made with a sanjhi under a framed glass board, lanterns, and stencils for children.

Mind-boggling geometric patterns, which could easily pass off for intricate windows in a Mughal court and bountiful trees that looked as though the leaves were for real were also there.

But the most lucrative idea to bring sanjhi into the mainstream has been to incorporate it into the ubiquitous bindi. "Our shop has a great demand for bindis of all shapes and sizes," said Lov. How appropriate that an art form, used by Radha to attract Krishna, now adorns the modern woman's forehead.