After many requests from curious onlookers, a fourth generation Sanjhi artist — Mohan Kumar Verma from Mathura — cuts a bird with flared wings taking flight. He does it with the help of handmade scissors and a tiny sheet of plucked paper with lightning fast speed. “This is all that I learnt from our grandfather. I’d lost my father and needed to support my family financially while other children of my age studied,” says the 48-year-old artist, who was showcasing the art of Sanjhi and depicting his works in the exhibition “Sanjhi Revisited” at Delhi’s Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre. The exhibition has been brought together by Delhi Crafts Council to celebrate their golden jubilee year. Over 80 artwork on display include depiction of domes flanked by minarets, decorated with designs of weeping willow, as clouds resembling Aladdin’s magical lamp hover from above. There is also a reinterpretion of Mughal garden illustrations from Good Earth’s coloring book Bagh-e-Bahar by another Sanjhi artist, Ashutosh Verma.
Sanjhi, the art of handcutting stencils from paper, is believed to have emerged over a 100 years ago as part of ritual decorations in the temples of Mathura and Vrindavan. The stencils depicting legends and pilgrimage locations associated with the life of Krishna are used to create intricate floor patterns or rangoli using coloured powder.
Purnima Rai, head of the organising committee and former President of Delhi Crafts Council, says, “With architecture as one of the many themes in the exhibition, the artists have portrayed buildings used in traditional Sanjhi, and reproduced several other architectural designs. Art is currently in a flux and its various possibilities need to reach out to more people. This show is a step in that direction.”
With the help of handmade paper, banana rice paper and jute paper, Mohan has replicated Mughal jali works inspired by the designs found in classic Mughal architecture, against the backdrop of a mirror. Artist Ram Soni has extensively cut out a series of illustrations of vases, spilling with flowers, out of silver foil, displayed against a deep blue colored backdrop. In Bamboo with Parrots, Soni has captured a parrot in a variety of postures while sitting atop a stylised bamboo tree — looking up at the sky and into the oblivion, searching for food and engaging with its counterpart.
As the craft enveloped into a declining phase in the early 20th century, where only a few temples in Vrindavan practiced it, the efforts of designers and NGOs including Delhi Crafts Council in recent decades have ensured a resurgence of the craft. Mohan says, “Almost 25 years ago, when I was invited at the National Crafts Museum in Delhi to display my products, no one was really willing to buy them. Even if a sheet of artwork paper was priced for Rs 100, people would question us and ask why it deserved to be sold at such a high price. It was demotivating and I had almost thought of quitting the profession. But as Delhi Crafts Council pushed us to bring in modern interpretations on coasters, lamps and wedding invitation cards, our craft flourished.” Mohan points out that he had even designed an entire wedding tent using Sanjhi art in Delhi and a pandal for Durga Puja in Kolkata a few years ago, where the exteriors of the pandal and the jewellery and clothing of the goddess was made of paper cut stencils. With most of the pieces at the exhibition now bearing a circled red mark and few works priced over a lakh, they only serve as a positive sign of a brighter future for the ancient artform.
The exhibition is on at Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, till August 12