The ancient Sanjhi art from Vrindavan struggles for survival

According to lore, Radha and her friends prepared beautiful patterns on the ground with flowers in order to welcome Krishna as he returned from grazing his cows at dusk. Dusk, which is sandhya in Hindi, is from where the word Sanjhi has emerged. This ancient art is in danger of disappearing.

Satish MalviyaSatish Malviya   27 April 2022 11:10 AM GMT

The ancient Sanjhi art from Vrindavan struggles for survival

Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh

Sanjhi painting, an ancient art form dedicated to Lord Krishna, has flourished for hundreds of years in the Vaishnav temples of Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. Acharya Sumit Goswami, who lives on the premises of the 500-year-old Radharaman temple in Vrindavan, is a Sanjhi artist himself and has practised this art for more than 25 years in the temple premises itself.

This ancient art has its origins in Braj, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and celebrates the divine love of Krishna and Radha, Goswami told Gaon Connection. There was a time when almost all Vaishnav temples in Vrindavan had Sanjhi and it was a part and parcel of the daily rituals, he said.

"According to lore, Radha and her friends prepared beautiful patterns on the ground with flowers in order to welcome Lord Krishna as he returned from grazing his cows at dusk," Goswami narrated. Dusk, which is sandhya in Hindi, is from where the word is said to have emerged.

Sanjhi was executed in the courtyards of the temple, and often outside the sanctum sanctorum. It was created behind closed doors and thrown open to the visitors to the temple only in the evenings. It is also something made by unmarried girls in anticipation of a good husband.

In earlier times, the ritual of Sanjhi making was practised in all the Vaishnav temples of Mathura and Vridavan. Now there are barely two or three temples in Vrindavan – the Shri Radharaman temple, the Bhatt Ji temple and the Shahjahanpur temple where one can still see Sanjhi art.

Intricacies of Sanjhi art

The most distinguishing feature of Sanjhi art is its geometrical outline. An octagon, a square, or a pentagon, is first drawn with dry colours, after which intricate designs of creepers, flowers, etc., are filled out and added to. In the centre is usually Lord Krishna with Radha.

"There are an infinite number of patterns we can make, and just finalising the design sometimes takes three to four days," Goswami said. Hanging on the walls of his home are framed Sanjhi art works, looking like designs from a kaleidoscope with the centre of it dedicated to Radha, Krishna and their divine love.

Sanjhi art is expensive to nurture. And it is time consuming and for years now, instead of it being a part and parcel of everyday rituals at the temples, it is done only once a year during the pitru paksha – the fortnight many Hindus make offerings to their forefathers.

"Sanjhi is intricate work. We create the designs on a platform of mud that we first prepare, " Goswami explained. It is not a solo work of art, at least ten people work on it together, keeping a close eye on the use of colours,the shading, the filling, etc., he continued.

Goswami has won many accolades for his artistry. It was he who took the art out of its home inside the temples to the outer world. The Sanjhi artist modernised it so that more people would come to know of its existence. The art that has been passed down for generations is in danger of disappearing altogether, he feared.

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Commercialising Sanjhi art

As it stands today, the Sanjhi artists, barely a handful of them, get no income from creating the works of art. "Sanjhi art has to be promoted and commercialised, just like it has been done with other art forms such as Madhubani," Shailendra Bhatt, a Sanjhi artist told Gaon Connection. "We hope the government intervenes and helps in preserving the ancient art tradition that otherwise is on the verge of extinction," he said.

Goswami raised similar concerns. "Very few people know of Sanjhi art. The government should step up to promote it more. I am trying to take the art out of the temples and into the world," he said. Things will change if this art form is promoted and commercialised like other kinds of art, he added.

"If the Sanjhi patterns are used as prints on clothes, linen, etc., it will give the practitioners some income," Goswami argued. "We cannot freeze it in an ancient bubble, we have to liberate it," he said passionately.

However, Shukratlal Goswami from the Radhaballabh temple in Vrindavan had another opinion. "Sanjhi art is a selfless service to the Gods. It should remain within the temples," he told Gaon Connection. While the art is in urgent need of support and patronage, it should not become a commercial enterprise, he said.

Sonia Shah, who is based in the United States of America but loves Sanjhi art enough to learn how to do it, told Gaon Connection: "The art is in a shambles. It is slowly choking to death as no one really knows or appreciates the significance of it. It is not just art, but a repository of our tradition and culture."

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"There is no awareness at all in the public at large or amongst the authorities. Sanjhi art has no identity and none of the younger generation sees any future in pursuing it," Sanjhi artist Bhatt complained.

Interestingly, Sanjhi art found mention in Parliament on March 22 this year when the Member of Parliament from Mathura, Hema Malini, asked: "The way Madhubani artists are promoting their work through painting on textiles, does the government have any similar plans to promote Sanjhi art?"

PN Bhargav, chairperson of the Braj Kala Kendra, a non-profit based in Vrindavan, told Gaon Connection that things were not as bad as the artists were making them sound.

"We conduct an annual programme on Sanjhi and we are fully supporting the Sanjhi artists," he said.

However, the office of the Braj Kala Kendra as well as Braj Foundation, another non profit, both in Vrindavan, were shut when Gaon Connection visited on April 24. According to the chowkidar there, the office had not been open for years. Gaon Connection contacted Gaurav Agarwal, project coordinator, Braj Foundation, based in Delhi. "We celebrate Sanjhi Mahotsav in Vrindavan annually, but we could not do so for two years because of the pandemic. However, we will take up the work once again and help support the art," he said.

Ajay Kumar Pandey, the director of the Braj Sanskriti Shodh Sansthan, a research institute, informed Gaon Connection that a Sanjhi course would be offered to people soon. "We will set up a six-month programme to train people in Sanjhi art. We have done considerable research on the art form and also published books and periodicals on it," he added.

"While it is important to promote Sanjhi art, its purity should not be sullied," Vibhu Bhatt from the Madanmohan temple in Vrindavan, told Gaon Connection.

"Every temple has its own Sanjhi identity but all are centred around Lord Krishna's life," he continued. "It is only because of temples like these that the art has managed to survive. There is an urgent need for people to step up and learn the art form or it will be lost forever," Vibhu Bhatt pointed out.

Tell more people about the art

"Even those fortunate enough to have seen Sanjhi art do not know its significance," Katyayni Agarwal a research scholar from Mumbai, told Gaon Connection. She added that holding workshops and seminars where Sanjhi art was displayed and discussed was paramount to saving the art form. "People should be made aware of its history, culture and significance; workshops should be held where children can learn how to make Sanjhi," she said.

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