Art of the Colorblind

Do you ever wonder what courtship was like in the days of yore? How were emotions parceled before mixed-tapes and suggestive flowers?  Well, it turns out that the expressive pursuit of love is as old as the recorded history of the first love affair.


Radha, stood out from all Gopikas as Lord Krishna’s favorite muse, as her quest for love often entailed a quest for creativity.  While there is ample mention of Raas, the theatrical dance of love and devotion, some subtle forms of expression were lost to time’s relentless melt.  One such form was, Sanjhi, the art of stenciling, a much intricate and refined version of what later came to be known as Rangoli.


 Folklore suggests that Radha would decorate her house with Sanjhi made with natural colours, flowers and coloured stones to welcome Krishna. The term Sanjhi is derived from the Hindi word Sandhya, the period of dusk with which the art form came to be associated.


For hundreds of years this unique craft evolved and flourished in Mathura, Krishna’s hometown. Vaishnavs, Ustads and Masters used plied scissors and sharp cutting blades to adorn the temples with Sanjhi motifs at the time of festivals such as Rasa, Holi, Janmashtmi and Jhulan.

While its sheer intricacy renders an immediate aesthetic appeal, over the decades it came to be considered as one of the finest arts of spiritual expression. What began as a depiction of mythological stories in the form of Krishna’s Leela later augmented at the hands of Ustads and artisans to illustrate contemporary themes and scenes from everyday life.img_20160113_180153

However Sanjhi is ebbing away from the shore of a generation that seems to have cut all ties with devotion. The implicit quotient of spirituality and the copious amount of time and patience it requires to create these stencils fails to attract contemporary artists. While relics of it can be found in Mathura, on display at a few metro stations in Delhi and in the pictograms used for the Commonwealth Games, the art form seems to be on a ventilator.


Malav Gowswami -a Delhi-based Chartered Accountant’s family- is one of the few custodians of this ancient art form. Through the wide window of Instagram and his recent stint at the Jaipur Art Festival, Malav is resuscitating this special craft. Following is an interview in which he takes us through his personal trajectory as well as that of Sanjhi.

Born into a family of musicians and artists, you have experimented with various forms of art, what fascinated you about Sanjhi?

 I have been sketching since as long as my memory stretches, as I grew up I felt like trying new mediums. My colorblindness proved to be an obstacle to painting, so I switched to ink paintings briefly. In 2011, my father began teaching me the art of creating Sanjhi stencils. And I felt that paper, with its lack of color and malleability to be carved into expressive details, was the form that was best suited to my vision and ability.

 Why is Sanjhi not seen in a commercial space more often? How has it evolved over the centuries?

 It is practiced as part of temple rituals in Mathura, which is why no one ever thought of using it to earn money. It’s a tradition in almost every temple to make stencils with hands and not buy decorations from the market. The whole idea is the ‘devotion’ of time and effort, immediacy of its acquisition would destroy the underlying purpose.

 Every place has its own regional flavor in the way they make these stencils. Some make single stencils while some use multiple ones to enhance detail and shades in the picture. Some temples even use cow dung to make Sanjhis.

 Where and when can one witness the beautiful work on display?

 Almost every temple in Vrindavan makes Sanjhi for a period of 15 days during the ‘Shraddha Paksh’ preceding Navratri. Sanjhi can be seen all its glory during that fortnight.

 What role do History and heritage play in your art and life?

 I come from a family that takes great pride in its history and traditions. When I first learned Sanjhi, my father told me how the technique began and developed in Mathura and how our family has preserved the tradition for hundreds of years. A Chartered Accountant with his own practice, my father would take out time from his packed schedule to ensure that this precious legacy is handed over to me.

 I’ve lived in Delhi for over 20 years now and have always been curious about the events that led up to the formation of this beautiful city, as we know it today. I would often venture into the streets of old Delhi with a diary. That’s where my fascination with Mughal Architecture started. The symmetry, attention to detail and the grand nature of everything they built, has been a strong influence and inspiration behind almost everything I have created in the past year. 

 How long does it roughly take to finish one stencil?

 It depends on the size and type of design. The designing and drawing is the difficult part. It usually takes 1.5 to 2 hours to draw a 10’’ square design. Then cutting it takes about four hours because my designs usually involve lines as thin as a thread so I have to be very patient with it.

Does this form require a particular kind of paper and tools?

 For cutting intricate designs, one needs to make sure that the blade is brand new and the paper is of a thickness that can withhold the cuts. When I started, I used my father’s custom made scissors. Sanjhi artists in Mathura still use scissors for this craft. But now I work with X-acto paper knives and Fabriano sketch paper.

 A Chartered Accountant by profession, is art a way for you to escape reality or to observe it acutely?

 At the moment, it is definitely my refuge, a way to escape reality. What I do might not involve deep thinking and introspection but the desire to create something special and unique of my own makes me forget everything around me. It has become a meditation that helps me relax and stay sane when times are rough.

 Do you plan to teach and sell your art?

 Yes, I do plan to teach as well as sell it, as the insistence on keeping it within the family will not help it in the long run. Most traditional art forms are dying either because of the reluctance of artisans to teach the craft to anyone outside of their families or due to a failure to match the pace of contemporary forms.

For more of Malav Goswami’ s work, go here .

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