Carved from the Heart

Documentary filmmaker Devika Gamkar has always been fascinated with traditional Indian fine arts.

Written by Swetha Ramakrishnan | Published: June 4, 2013 3:01:00 am

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

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 untold. 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,” she says. Originally,Saanjhi stencils were used to carve out anecdotes of Hindu mythology,particularly focusing on Lord Krishna.

With a background in film,media and art,Gamkar decided to make a documentary that explores 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,this paper art welcomed us. From afar,the artwork looked like a beautiful white canvas,through which lucid,kaleidoscopic designs had been stenciled out.

Used in many temples and traditional Gujarati homes,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 in Mathura. With a rich amalgamation of the flute and tabla as background score,Gamkar’s film takes us on a journey. “It took me two years to make the film,and I was taking on other projects to fund the film. I didn’t want any external funding,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 mellifluious,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,and 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,” says Ajay.

To keep up with the inflated prices,they sell their stenciled papers in bazaars in Delhi,Mathura and other 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,where he would make bindi designs for girls with stencils. We can’t only be dependant on our talent,” says 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. Atleast,now people know about Saanjhi,” she says.

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