Sanjhi Art: Using Stencils To Create Soulful Art
Do you remember using stencils in art class when you were in school? Or perhaps you’ve used them to make rangolis during Diwali. Stencils are easy to use and a great way to reduce the work needed to finish a complicated artwork. Chances are, you’ve always viewed them as a tool. But what if we told you that stencils are not just a tool but a medium to create intricate artwork? The Sanjhi art of Mathura is one such art form that uses stencils to create breathtaking and intricate religious imagery.
The finished artwork is filled with beautiful and intricate details, even without any linework. Both Sanjhi stencils and the art created with them are equally popular. Let’s look at Sanjhi art and explore the methods and motifs of this traditional form of devotion.
A Brief History Of Stencilling As an Art Medium
Stencil art dates back to Palaeolithic cave paintings. The Egyptians used stencils made out of bamboo and banana leaves to decorate their tombs. Young English women would practise European ‘theorem painting’, a style of stencil painting that was extremely popular in elite society. They used multiple stencils to paint on velvet, paper, silk, crepe, or wood. The style was designed to mimic Indian and Asian paintings, and it was also called ‘Poona painting’, named after the city of Poona (present-day Pune).
Stencils are also popular in graffiti, a style of street art that is synonymous with bold imagery and in-your-face impact. Stencil graffiti is cheap, not too detailed, and allows the message or theme of the artwork to be the central focus. Graffiti artists began using stencils sometime around World War II. Painters would also use stencils to decorate murals and temples, as it made the process quicker and more convenient.
The Spirituality And Story Behind Sanjhi Art
Sanjhi began as a folk tradition for young, unmarried girls. They would coat the outer wall of the house with mud and cowdung and apply bits of clay, flowers, leaves, stones, and mirrors to create the image of the goddess Sanjhi. It underwent many changes when it was introduced to the Vaishnavas and became a part of temple traditions.
Poetic renditions of picking flowers and using them to create Sanji rangolis became popular. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Brahmin priests began creating Sanjhi art in temples to worship Lord Krishna. Some part of the folk tradition has been preserved in the form of ‘flower sanjhis’ which are only created by girls in the temples.
Myths of Radha and Krishna interlink with all variations of Sanjhi art. Flower sanjhis, for example, are said to have been created as a form of devotion to Krishna by Radha and the gopis. Since Sanjhi art depicts Vrindavan; cows, bullock carts, butterflies, peacocks, monkeys, Kadamba trees, and the Yamuna river, as well as flowers and creepers, are popular motifs. We can see some Persian influences in the form of jaalis and in a change in the styles depicting flora and fauna.
Sanjhi Art: India’s Stencil Art Form
It is believed that Chinese travellers introduced stencilling to India. While stencils are more commonly associated with rangoli, the process of Sanjhi art is more complicated. Rangoli stencils are mass-produced, and the stencils for Sanjhi art are all created by hand. Thus, stencils are not just a tool but an important part of the art form. Locals believe that this art form originated over 300 years ago in the towns of Mathura and Vrindavan.
Important events in Krishna’s life, legends, and stories from before Krishna left Vrindavan are the subjects of Sanjhi art. This art form is ritualistic and spiritual in nature. It is a form of decoration for places of worship. We see Sanjhi art in Radha-Vallabha in Vrindavan, Radha-Madanamohana, Nathdwara in Rajasthan, and the Radha-Ramana temple. Artists originally cut Sanjhi stencils from banana leaves. They now cut them out of paper using specially designed, handmade scissors. The tip of the scissors is curved, and each artist customises it according to their preferences.
Sanjhi artists can directly cut out intricate shapes without needing to sketch out a design. The artist places the cut stencil on a flat surface (or even water in Jal Sanjhi) and carefully sprinkles coloured powder over it. After this step, the artist removes the stencil, being careful not to disturb the rest of the painting. He holds his breath and does it quickly, in a single motion.
Artists use multiple stencils to create a single painting. They sometimes fold in the corners of the stencils to create a handle that allows them to lift them easily. After filling in all the shapes, the artist adds the finishing touches. After this step, the Sanjhi art is ready to be worshipped.
Jal Sanjhi: A Variation Of Sanjhi Art
Only one family in Udaipur practises Jal Sanjhi. According to popular myths, this method began with Radha using flowers to outline Lord Krishna’s reflection. To start the process of creating Jal Sanjhi art, the artist Rajesh Pancholi first treats the water by boiling it and then adds a mixture of substances. He then pours the water into a shallow vessel and allows it to settle. This helps the powdered colours float on the surface of the water instead of sinking. The painting starts the day after the water has been treated.
Artists use thin rice paper to create stencils for Jal Sanjhi. The artist places the stencil on the surface of the water and uses a sieve to carefully sprinkle the powdered colour evenly. The finished painting floats on the water. Artists draw Jal Sanjhi art in the temples during festivals and special occasions. The paintings last for only a day. After that, the powder colours start to sink and mix with the water. It is a dying art form and not a very lucrative source of income.
The ‘Sanjhi Revisited’ exhibition held at the Visual Arts Gallery, Delhi, in 2017 was an initiative to bring this hidden art form to the forefront. The Delhi Crafts Council, which has been working to preserve Sanjhi art for more than 30 years, was in charge of curating the five-day exhibition. There were over 80 Sanjhi art pieces on display. The art on display included the work of fourth-generation artist Mohan Kumar Verma and sixth-generation artist Ashutosh Verma. Ashutosh Varma has also created Sanjhi art for decorative purposes and sells his paper stencils online as framed artwork.
The Survival Of Sanjhi Art Today
At the G20 summit in 2022, delegates witnessed Mr. Rajesh Vaishnav create a Jal Sanjhi painting. The delegates were awestruck, and this made headlines and created a ripple of interest in Jal Sanjhi. Contemporary artist Ram Soni has modernised Sanjhi art by creating stencils out of plastic instead of paper and adding calligraphic script to his pieces. His Sanjhi art is displayed at the Delhi metro station.
He also collaborated with the NGO Pratham to work on a huge paper chandelier for a fund-raising auction event in London. The Pratham team created the chandelier, which was 11m wide and 26m long, by creating Sanjhi art stencils from the drawings of 8000 children and using them as screen panels. It is the largest hand-cut paper chandelier in the world.
Ram Soni states that he received help from the Ministry of Art and Culture as well as private organisations like Kaaru, which are helping preserve this underappreciated traditional art form. Although many organisations are doing their best to save rare art forms, their efforts will be in vain if the general public doesn’t assist them in these endeavours.
Discover us on Instagram @rooftop_app for all things on Indian traditional, folk, and tribal art.
By Melissa D’Mello