Sanjih/Hand Cutting of Paper for Rangoli

Sanjih is a ritualistic craft used in the worship of Lord Krishna. This craft involves the cutting of an intricate stencil depicting scenes from the life of Lord Krishna and the use of this paper stencil in making rangolis. The origin of the word sanjih, it is felt, could either be derived from the sancha or mould from which the stencil is cut or it could have originated from the word sanjh --- the coming of dusk --- when the rangoli was traditionally unveiled in the temples. Though rangoli-making is practised in most parts of India and has, for centuries, been a part of the ritualistic worship of the gods, the craft of sanjih is rare. The craftsmen at Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh are among the few still carrying on the age-old tradition, the origins of which are lost in antiquity.

The intricate templates that are cut in the form of the image that is to be seen are the artists' tool rather than the final piece of art work. The cutting of the sanjhi requires enormous concentration and skill for a single slip can mar hours of work. In temples in north India dedicated to Lord Vishnu, stencils were cut in banana leaves and in paper for the rangoli that was to be used to embellish the courtyard of the inner sanctum. Presently, the art of using the sanjih is practised mainly in temples and homes in Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh and it is used to depict the different episodes in Lord Krishna's life";" these episodes are linked to festivals in the Vraja calendar. The most important of these festivals is the Vraja Yatra --- a period of 45 days in September and October when pilgrims from all over India visit the sites associated with Lord Krishna. During this period sanjihs are used to decorate places of worship, both in homes and temples. The episodes in Lord Krishna's life that are depicted through sanjihs change every day with appropriate themes adorning specific locations. The temple priests and craftspersons fill in sanjihs with coloured powders applied through the stencils. When the sanjih is unveiled in time for the evening prayers it is worshipped to the accompaniment of songs narrating stories about Lord Krishna's life. The sanjih is then effaced in the morning and a new characterisation is then made. The material used is then disposed off in the Yamuna. Sanjih's are now created on only five of the holy days unlike in the past when each day saw the creation of a new sanjih. Traditionally a craft practised only by men, it was priests in the temple who created the sanjihs. Due to the large size of the temple, it took at least eight priests to finish the sanjih for the evening unveiling.

The rangoli that fills in the sanjih can be made of fresh flowers, coloured stones, metal foil, pieces of mirror, and coloured powder, the last being the most popular. It can also be applied on walls or floors of houses. The equipment required to cut a sanjih is minimal. Paper or banana leaves are used as the base material. The craftsperson starts work only after offering prayers to his guru (teacher) who taught him the craft, his tools, and the gods. The first stage in the process of creating a sanjih is the sketching of the theme and pattern. If more than one copy is required the papers are pinned together on all sides. The cutting of the sanjih is the next step. The scissors used are very fine and slightly curved at one end to enable detailed cutting. Each craftsperson individualises the curve on the scissors to suit personal requirements. (When not in use the scissors are carefully wrapped in cloth to protect the tip and as a mark of respect to the tool that creates the sanjih.) While cutting, the paper is rotated so that the intricate design can be cut. The number of paper cuts that are used for any design depend on the intricacy of the pattern and the number of colours to be used, as each colour requires a separate paper cut of its own. Each paper cut is folded at the corner tip, and the craftsperson uses this fold to gently lift up the paper once the colour has been applied through the cutout. The crucial moment is when the colour has been filled in and it is time to lift up the sanjih. The craftsperson holds his breath as even a faint breathe of air can disturb the colours and gently, in a single movement, removes the sanjih.

The size of the sanjih depends on the occasion, the traditions of the temple where the sanjih is to be laid, and the theme to be characterised. The maximum size is 8 feet by 12 feet and the sanjih can be octagonal, square, rectangular, or circular. Traditionally the sides have detailed borders with flowers and creepers, while the theme to be depicted is at the centre and is the main focus of the sanjih. The sanjih can be either laid on the floor or on a raised platform (vedi) created using a mixture of mud and cowdung. Other methods also exist. The submerged sanjih is one where a shallow dish is lightly coated with mustard oil and then powders insoluble in water are evenly filled in with the help of the cut out pattern. The sanjih pattern that has been folded at the corners is then lifted off very carefully and the dish is then upturned to loosen the extra colour. Water is then carefully poured in from the side without disturbing the colours. The rangoli produced is viewed from under the water and is very unusual in its appearance, as it seems to be moving gently. Another method of using the sanjih is to create a rangoli that floats on water. The process followed is similar to the one used in the 'submerged' sanjhi except after the oil is applied on the vessel, it is filled with water. When the oil floats to the surface the stencil is carefully placed on it and the coloured powders are filled in. This rangoli is difficult to create but the results are spectacular.

The number of craftspersons practising sanjih in Mathura and Vrindavan is limited. The demand for their work in its traditional form has been declining over the years. In a search for alternative employment for their skills they have turned their hand to making sanjihs for contemporary use. Sanjih templates are now used as stencils for decorative bindis, henna patterns and sari borders. Sanjihs are also used in greeting cards, cutout partitions, coasters, trays, and other decorative items as a form of artwork. When used on lampshades and window partitions the sanjih comes to life when lit up. Here the intricate and delicate cut of the sanjih itself and not the rangoli, as was the tradition, is the centrepiece of creation. The price of a sanjih artwork ranges from Rs 7 for a bindi cut to between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 for a large and delicate filigree artwork. In the past few years the Delhi Crafts Council has done pioneering work in reviving and popularising the languishing craft of sanjih.