The scissors in his trained hands move deftly across a delicate piece of paper creating intricate patterns that would leave one in awe and admiration. As there is no room for mistake, practice is the only way to achieve perfection. He is Mohan Kumar Verma, a fourth generation Sanjhi artisan from Mathura, who started learning the craft when he was only eleven years old.
His family is one of the few remaining custodians of this craft and a big chunk of his recent work will be displayed at an exhibition, ‘Sanjhi Revisited’, at Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre from August 8 to 12. “There was a time when this form of art was on the verge of decline. But, all credit for its revival should go to Delhi Crafts Council, organisers of the exhibition,who have given it a new lease of life,” Mohan tells ACF.
This is because Sanjhi, the art of hand cutting stencils from paper, was once only used as part of ritual decorations in the temples of Mathura and Vrindavan. The craft is believed to have originated a few hundred years and is associated with the Vallabhacharya sect of Vaishnavism. Its exponents were local temple priests and artisans.
“The stencils were used to make intricate floor patterns and illustrations depicting legends and pilgrimage locations associated with the life of Krishna. In the more elaborate Sanjhis, sets of complementary stencils were used for a layering of variously coloured patterns, giving the final image detail and depth,” he adds.
However, its limited usage offered only limited employment opportunities to these artisans who were unaware how this craft could be moulded in a useful way for the modern generation.
This is when the Delhi Crafts Council stepped in the late 1980s, at a time when only a few temples in Vrindavan were continuing to keep the tradition of Sanjhi alive, and there were just a few families left practising the craft.
They were given workshops where they were encouraged to use this craft for making decorative items like lamps and wall paintings. “The artisans were encouraged to use handmade paper as well as work on larger pieces using newer themes. The increased exposure to a much larger audience resulted in bringing about a major transformation of the craft. No longer just a stencil intended to make designs, the Sanjhi paper cut itself became the final art work,” says Radhika Bharat Ram, General Secretary, Delhi Craft Council.
Elaborating further, she adds, “This exhibition is our attempt to push the boundaries of this ethereal craft – we have experimented with the traditional techniques using innovative material and display methods to contemporise the art while maintaining the essence of this highly skilled, delicate and time consuming handicraft.”
Along with Mohan, works of Ram Soni, another Sanjhi artist will also be on display.