Sanjhi: Almost forgotten Festival of North India

When we were small boys, every year ten days before the festival Dussehra, our mother would choose a small area on one of the mud walls and make a crude image of a woman, stars and moon and bullocks with the cow dung. We lived in the village. Almost everyone has some land on which agriculture was done. Also there were plenty of animals like cows and buffaloes. Houses were made of mud and walls and floors were plastered with wet cow dung. We did not understand all this and thought this as some folk art. It was called Sanjhi. Now this ritual has almost vanished like many other rituals which were observed in the rural parts of the country. The images slightly resembled the Warli art. Both were drawn almost in the straight lines meeting to form triangles and squares.

Sanjhi
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Sanjhi images in my sisters home at a village in chandigarh

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The image is called Sanjhi and established on the first day of the nine days of   Durga Puja or Navratras. In fact, a common thread runs throughout India and festivals have the similar philosophy behind them. Only the style varies from place to place. Even days coincide. The images of Sanjhi are suggestive of Durga, Uma and Katyayani. And just like Durga Puja in which the idols of the deity are immersed in the river waters, Sanjhi festival also ends with the immersion of Sanjhi on the day of Dussehra.

The festival is observed mainly in Haryana and Punjab. The girls offer prayers and food to the goddess everyday.

These shapes including stars, moon, sun, face of the goddess etc are given different colors. The star-studded collage is fixed on the wall of a dwelling, facing south, in the later half of the early October or late September months. In some places, the image of Sanjhi is painted on the wall. The art of Sanjhi is quite native and simple.

Apart from the various forms of Sanjhi created on the first day of the moon in Kartika, there are some other rituals observed by girls during the Navaratras. Devotional songs are sung just after dusk. Lighted earthen lamps are held by adolescent girls who assemble around Sanjhi. They sing chorus songs, that are centuries old, to please the goddess. The girls, who sing these songs are rewarded by their elders with token money.

Sanjhi on Wall

The girls believe that by appeasing Sanjhi they will get a good husband. In one of the songs, Sanjhi is asked about her basic needs — what would she like to wear or eat. In another song, the girls promise to appease her by offering presents. This low key group activity is held every evening for nine days in front of the Sanjhi image put up on walls. On the tenth day of Dussehra, the images from the walls, along with the cow dung used as an adhesive, are scratched and removed. Only the head of the figure is securely contained inside a small earthen vessel whose belly has been ridden with several holes. In the evening, the girls with their respective earthen vessels float their lighted pots in the village pond.

The vessels are hit with cudgels by the village youth to stop the bowls from reaching the other end. A legend says that none of the bowls should float across the pond and touch the other end, otherwise misfortune would fall on the village.

Madhubani Paintings

About 70% of Indian population still lives in villages. Agriculture and its related cottage industries is the main occupations of the inhabitants of the villagers. Since the times immemorial, the village folks lead a simple life and most of the work is manual. In many areas, the agriculture is dependent on the good weather and timely change in the weather. Most of the populace also rears animals which meet their many needs like milk, milk products like butter, ghee. This means that if the crops are good, and animals are providing articles of the necessity, the rural folk is happy.

As a result of this, all these things are revered. Farmer prays to the God, to bless his soil with good crops through rains. The cow which yields milk and endows the farmer with bullocks is highly revered by Hindus. It has been given the rank of mother. As everyone knows that Krishna was a cowherd and you can see pictures in which he is depicted playing a flute and cows gathered around him in love and affection.

The arts developed in different regions of rural India are as simple as the folks. For example, the Warli art depicts the simple village life like trees, animals, marriage ceremonies etc. Another such beautiful art is Madhubani or Mithila art. It developed in the village called Mithila, a village in the Bihar. Like Warli paintings the base is again the depiction of the rural life and the rituals observed in the area. In addition to the animals, trees and birds, in most of the paintings, the central theme is the God and Goddesses. Shiva, Sita and Rama are most popular. Sita figures dominantly because of the fact that Sita was the princess of this area. Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity is repeatedly drawn on the floor from the door to the worship room. Many symbols are used to convey the popular beliefs by the artist. For example, fish symbolises the good luck and snakes as our protectors.

The paintings on the walls which are plastered with cow dung as wells floors are the part of daily ritual based on the belief that Gods visit the house daily and it is to welcome them that these decorations are done. The painting is done by using natural colors derived from flowers and plants as well rice paste. Womenfolk did all the paintings. The difference from Warli paintings is that no area is left blank in the canvas. After the central figure which occupies the major portion of the space, there are leaves, birds and animals. In contrast to these, in the Warli paintings religious figures are totally missing. In fact, Madhubani paintings are more evolved than Warli paintings. Both are beautiful in their own way.

These paintings are so beautiful that they are in great demand. That is why now the art is made on cloth and paper and graces the homes of well to do in the cities.

Many famous artists include Shri Bua Devi Jha, Shri Jagdamba Devi, Shri Sita Devi, Shri Mahasundari Devi and others. Madhubani painting got official recognition in 1970 when the President of India gave an award to Mrs Jagdamba Devi of Village Jitbarpur near Madhubani. Beside her, two other painters, Mrs Sita Devi and Mrs Mahasundari Devi, were also given national awards in this field. In 2011, Shri Mahasundari Devi was again awarded, this time Padma Shri by the government of India.

Here is the Bharti Dayal’s website on Madhubani paintings.

Warli:The Innocent and Natural Folk Art

With the intense activity to industrialize the country, the selfish entrepreneurs are venturing into the areas which have remained unaffected and immune to the fast pace of industrialization. Although for a country to become economically self sufficient, it is necessary to exploit the natural resources but given the present structure of economy, only a few are benefiting from all this at the cost of mindlessly destroying the nature and create problems for so many people who depend upon the nature for the lives. These people, whom we call tribal, live in complete harmony with the nature using only whatever is absolutely necessary. Many tribal societies which were on the periphery of towns have been influenced by the ever expanding demon of expansion in cities. The places which were uninhabited have become populated and the expansion is widening its circle relentlessly.

But still there are tribal people which remain immune to the influence of city life despite being in the proximity of the cities. They have resisted the contact with city life and live in their own world preserving their simple and close to mother nature based culture. One such community is called  Warlis.  It is the name of the largest tribe found on the northern outskirts of Mumbai, in Western India. Warli Art was first discovered in the early seventies. While there are no records of the exact origins of this art, its roots may be traced to as early as the 10th century A.D. Warli is the vivid expression of daily and social events of the Warli tribe of Maharashtra, used by them to embellish the walls of village houses. This was the only means of transmitting folklore to a populace not acquainted with the written word. This art form is simple in comparison to the vibrant paintings of Madhubani.

Women are mainly engaged in the creation of these paintings. These paintings do not depict mythological characters or images of deities, but depict social life. Images of human beings and animals, along with scenes from daily life are created in a loose rhythmic pattern. These tribal paintings of Maharashtra are traditionally done in the homes of the Warlis. Painted white on mud walls, they are pretty close to pre-historic cave paintings in execution and usually depict scenes of human figures engaged in activities like hunting, dancing, sowing and harvesting.

Stylistically, they can be recognized by the fact that they are painted on an austere mud base using one color, white, with occasional dots in red and yellow. This colour is obtained from grounding rice into white powder. This sobriety is offset by the ebullience of their content. These themes are highly repetitive and symbolic. Many of the Warli paintings that represent Palghat, the marriage god, often include a horse used by the bride and groom. The painting is sacred and without it, the marriage cannot take place. These paintings also serve social and religious aspirations of the local people. It is believed that these paintings invoke powers of the Gods.

In Warli paintings it is rare to see a straight line. A series of dots and dashes make one line. The artists have recently started to draw straight lines in their paintings. These days, even men have taken to painting and they are often done on paper incorporating traditional decorative Warli motifs with modern elements such as the bicycle, etc. Warli paintings on paper have become very popular and are now sold all over India. Today, small paintings are done on cloth and paper but they look best on the walls or in the form of huge murals that bring out the vast and magical world of the Warlis. For the Warlis, tradition is still adhered to but at the same time new ideas have been allowed to seep in which helps them face new challenges from the market.

These paintings resemble the cave paintings in that these are very close to nature and deal with common elements like animals, birds, marriages ceremonies and crops. These are simply beautiful because they are faithful attempts to represent the three dimensional world to 2 dimensional plane. The details are not required to be painted. It is from the contours and our human perception that we relate it to the real world.

These paintings have become very popular and its artists have been awarded for their work. One such painter is Jivya Soma Mhase who has been awarded Padmashree for his work.