Carved from the Heart

Filmmaker Devika Gamkar’s documentary is a tribute to the traditional artists of India and graphs the lives of three Saanjhi artists based in Mathura.

Written by Swetha Ramakrishnan | Published: June 4, 2013 2:24:31 am

Documentary filmmaker Devika Gamkar has always been fascinated with traditional Indian fine arts. As a child,she would visit the Craft Museum in Delhi and stand at the stalls for hours. “I’d always want to be on the other side of the stone,where the artists would sit,” she says. She realised soon enough that the artists’ side of the story was never told. Back in 2011,when her mother contacted a couple of Saanjhi artists to work on a newly constructed temple in their office,Gamkar met three artists from Mathura who worked with this traditional stenciled art. “They’re always around,in Dilli Haat or at Surajkund melas. We turn a blind eye to them,” she says. Originally,Saanjhi stencils were used to carve out stories from Hindu mythology,particularly focusing on Krishna.

With a background in film,media and art,Gamkar decided to make a documentary on the art of Saanjhi. We saw samples of the artwork at the India International Centre last Thursday,during the screening of Gamkar’s documentary,Saanjhi: Traditional Kalakaar. Finely detailed,the white canvases,had kaleidoscopic designs stenciled on them.

Used in many temples and traditional Gujarati homes even today,these stenciled artwork are bought and recreated as a service to god. By sifting colour through the papercuts,the desired result is placed on white powder to make the final design. The film revolves around three brothers,Ajay,Vijay and Mohan,and their lives as Saanjhi artists living in Mathura. With a rich amalgamation of the flute and tabla as background score,Gamkar’s film takes one on a journey. “It took me two years to make the film,and I was taking on other media projects in the meanwhile to fund the film. I didn’t want any external funding,or any commercial aspect putting pressure on the trail of the film,” says Gamkar.

Vijay,the eldest brother,speaks about shraddha (dedication to his art) and how god is their inspiration. “When Thakurjee (lord Krishna) would venture out in the evenings,all the gopis would decorate their homes with flowers and colours. He would stop outside the most beautiful house,and play the flute. We usually try to capture these mythological moments in our artwork,” he says.

The narrative is mellifluous,dripping with nostalgia. The focus shifts to the second brother Ajay,who is on a boat,sailing across the Yamuna. He speaks about keeping Saanjhi alive in today’s commercial world. “I was in Pragati Maidan during an exhibition a couple of years ago. One customer refused to pay the quoted price because he kept insisting that it was just paper. Just paper,is the most hurtful thing that we as artists could hear. We put our souls into our work,and we only ask for that recognition,” says Ajay.

To keep up with the inflated prices,they sell their stenciled papers in bazaars in Delhi,Mathura and other neighbouring cities. They have always managed to strike a balance between commercial pressures and love for their art. “My grandfather used to run a shop called Design Bindiwale back in the day,where he would make bindi designs for girls with stencils. We can’t only be dependent on our talent,otherwise what will we eat?” asks Ajay.

The film brings this crucial point to the fore,as Gamkar didn’t want to make a breezy film that ignores harsh realities. “These artists are waiting for their voice to be heard. I’m glad people came to watch the film,atleast now they know about Saanjhi. I plan to make more such films on traditional Indian art forms,” she says.

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