Snips & sanctity

Paper craft

Snips & sanctity

The depiction of episodes from the life of Lord Krishna in the form of floor illustrations — the Sanjhi art — in the hallowed temple precincts belonging to the Pushti marg (a Vaishnav sect), has been traced to the 17th century.

Laying it is considered a form of worship to the deity by the priests and craftspersons who are steeped in devotion to Thakurji Lord Krishna. This sacred art is additionally practised in its secular avatar in several villages across North India, including Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, and Alwar in Rajasthan.

It is also believed that the practice of Sanjhi art is rooted in the folk custom of worshipping mother-goddess Sanjhi Devi. Unmarried girls propitiated the goddess with worship so she could bless them with good husbands.

After creating decorative collages on plastered walls using bits of coloured stone, shiny metal pieces and flowers, prayer to the goddess is uttered at ‘sanjh’ — the twilight hour when the leftover light fades to welcome the night, and when worlds coalesce into one.

Legend has it that Radha created the first ever Sanjhi to woo Lord Krishna; the other gopis soon followed suit. But it’s in the 17th century, when Sanjhi become part of temple tradition linked to the devotional Bhakti movement, that the practice of laying it commenced.

Within temples

Today, several temples across the Braj Bhoomi area associated with Lord Krishna’s youth continue the practice. In Vrindavan, they include the Radhavallabh and Radharaman temples, while one temple in Barsana, the birthplace of Radha, celebrates this practice.
During the last five days of the Pitru Paksha — the lunar fortnight that falls between September and October, between the 11th day (Ekadasi) and the dark night of Amavasya — Sanjhi is laid out on each day in the temple precincts.

The process begins with the building of the vedi, a raised platform that is plastered with mud and cow dung.

The platform can extend up to 8x12 feet in dimension, and can take the form of an octagon or square or rectangle or circle. Paper-cut stencils (sanchas) of a chosen episode from Lord Krishna’s life are cut on a series of interconnected papers. These form the tools of the trade. Skilled craftsmen, accompanied by temple priests, sift powdered colours slowly through the open cuts of the stencil and form the Sanjhi in a slow meditation.

The work is a task, as even a breath of air can disperse the powder and distort the image. Lifting the stencils once the colours have been laid is as complicated. Even a slight slip can result in the smudging of the image.

When much smaller sizes of Sanjhis have to be designed, the option of a floating Sanjhi on top of a waterbody — by submerging it in a water dish that is lightly coated with oil, and then decorating it using water-insoluble powders filled in through the paper-cuts — is a preferred one. Depending on the size and intricacy of the design, the laying of Sanjhi usually starts in the early hours of the morning to be unveiled for the auspicious public viewing (darshan) at dusk. The Sanjhi is then worshiped with food (bhog) and is offered prayers by the priests and worshippers.

This elaborate creation, after its unveiling, is carefully effaced at the end of day. The powdered colours are collected and dissolved in the flowing waters of the nearby Yamuna. The ritual is created and recreated on each of the five auspicious days. While the Sanjhi has to be designed between dawn and dusk, its planning can take several months.

Systematic approach

The themes from Lord Krishna’s life to be depicted over the five days are decided, so is the elaboration of the episode, its layout, the spatial patterning and cutting of the stencils, which require patience.

The Sanjhi art is also practised, not as a temple ritual, by Ram Soni in Alwar, and by Vijay and Mohan Kumar Verma’s family in Mathura. Retaining their links to the contemplative and meditative aspects of their traditional vocation, they create the most detailed of patterns, figures and motifs for their wide customer base.

Using the most minimal of tools — a single small-sized iron scissor that has been customised to suit the hand of the practitioner — the craftsperson cuts intricate and complex designs on the paper for screens, room dividers, lamp-shades, wall hangings, wedding cards and coasters. Ram Soni’s pièce de résistance can be seen at the INA metro station in New Delhi.

In its secular form, the detailed paper-cuts are now the focus of the craft, and not the powder-filled images laid out for worship by the devotee. What was once considered the tool of their craft — the hand-cut stencil — is now central to the creative process, and it is the final product.

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