Discovering the woman who single-handedly rejuvenated an entire art tradition

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Shampa Shah

“Sonabai’s hut is a veritable museum, where art is not meant to be seen in its exclusiveness, but provides a palpable environment for living.”
J. Swaminathan

It was an experience to see Sonabai sitting in her house populated by birds, trees, lions, goats, monkeys, girls and boys that were her own creation. She was at the same time a part of the house and apart of it, as if she is in the world and out of it simultaneously. The relief figures and frescoes that she created are images from day-to-day life, which most might even call realistic. I find them abstracted.

The figure of Krishna playing the flute in Sonabai’s fresco wears a shirt and trousers like any other boy on the road, with a row of buttons lining the front. We recognise him as Krishna because the myth of stealing the clothes of Gopis and hanging them upon trees relates to Krishna, and is part of a memory. But the element that gives this fresco the essential abstraction is the expression that the faces wear. This self-contained expression is what makes it transcendent. The tree on the wall is just like any other tree, but the space between the branches is as if brought to life by the line patterns or Chhoha on the wall that her fingers create, moving deftly around each form as if in ripples.

Besides, isn’t it interesting that Sonabai envisages a Krishna without his crown, his ornaments or the peacock feather, but in a simple lad’s pants and shirt, very plainly. She is not into caricaturing of any kind, nor is she attempting a satire on religion or modernity for that matter. Perhaps situated in that particular time-space as an artist, it is her way of relating to her surroundings and trying to catch an abstraction, who we also know by the name of Krishna.

Pointing with my finger to one of the bamboo and clay lattices in the courtyard, I asked Sonabai, “What are those round ones called or what is that one with the bird inside named as?”
“Do not know”, she said, and added a while later, “When I made these first, I did not know I would be asked their names one day. I just made what I felt like making. If you like, you can call this one chudi jhinjri (bangle lattice) and that one with the bird inside pinjra jhinjri (cage lattice).”

No, Sonabai did not engage in creating this other world of creatures inhabiting the clay filigree for people to come and enquire about; much less for someone to shower accolades and citations on her. Nevertheless, the fact remains that ever since her art was discovered by a team under J. Swaminathan way back in 1983, connoisseurs of art have not stopped visiting her. \

What is it in the simple mud house of Sonabai Rajwar that attracts such a lot of attention from the world over? And why did she make such a house?

Sonabai was born into a large family in the village Kenapara of Chhattisgarh, circa 1930. At 14, she was married to Holiram, who soon after marriage decided to build a new house away from habitation. No neighborhood, none in the house to talk to and an incomplete house, Sonabai began to ponder what would make it feel like a home. She remembered helping her mother in painting the walls of the house in her childhood with white clay.

Sonabai took up clay once again, this time for her own house, and eventually never put it down. Her husband Holiram was not pleased with this. Every time he came home, there she was with muddy hands. In his irritation, he used to ask her sometimes if she could also eat this clay and live on it. However, his annoyance had little effect on Sonabai.

Slowly, the corridor that circled the courtyard and the adjacent walls began to be inhabited. The split bamboo chips twisted and tied into different shapes with the help of a jute string, covered with a layer of clay, thus taking the shape of a lattice stretched from floor to the roof. Following it came all the creatures, the drummer and the rest of the team to enliven the lonely house. Sonabai’s hands just didn’t stop. There was not a corner that was left uninhabited.

A whole universe came alive with its seasons and festivals. Such an original revenge upon the ‘loneliness’! For a moment, one is not sure whether it is the traditional, or a modern artist who is being talked about. To quote Dr Jyotindra Jain, “She revitalized and built upon an inherited collective tradition, which thereby initiated and established her own tradition, which again became a ‘collective’ tradition — but with a difference.”

To continue with the story of Sonabai, the team which came in 1983 from Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, included famous painter and photographer Shri Jyoti Bhatt. Another researcher in the team — Archana Verma — recalls that the guard at the circuit house had mentioned Sonabai and her house. He had told them that she is not a potter, but her house was full of clay figures. Next day, when the team landed at Sonabai’s house, they stood speechless at what their eyes beheld.

Following this, they rummaged through all the houses in Puhputra and other neighbouring villages but could not locate a single house with similar lattice and clay relief work on the walls. Everyone agreed that the lattice and creatures inhabiting them were solely Sonabai’s creation. This was a phenomenon hitherto unheard of by research scholars connected with folk and tribal art. This was an indelible proof of the role of individual talent and intervention, thereby rejuvenating or transforming an existing tradition.

Sonabai went on to receive the President’s award in 1983, Tulsi Samman in 1985, was invited to foreign lands and showered with accolades from the world over.

Way bigger than this is the fact that now, many houses in that region have courtyards and surrounding walls embellished with motifs and figures in Sonabai’s tradition. There are at least a dozen talented women and men who are carrying forward the work started long back by Sonabai. The entire Rajwar community now has an identity and a place of pride on the art map of the world. What more can art achieve?

I am reminded here of what Peter Brook wrote in his foreword to the script of the play Mahabharata. “Art means celebrating the most refined possibilities of every element and art means extracting the essence from every detail, so that the detail can reveal itself as a meaningful part of an inseparable whole.”

(To be continued)

Shampa Shah established the Ceramic Section at Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man (IGRMS), writes about how tribal artists and artefact makers have reimagined and reinvented an entire tradition, and created a new world altogether. These last mile creative figureheads have helped keep India’s glorious history of art relevant in the contemporary world. This is second part of her series. You can read the first here.

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