What happens when a dedicated art educator/writer like Vishakha Chanchani teams up with noted US-based cultural anthropologist and Indian folk craft expert Stephen Huyler? They magically, quite poetically, conjure up the life of Sonabai of Puhphutara village in Madhya Pradesh.

Some lives are akin to those of a plant. Without sunlight and water, they wither and perish. Others struggle to bloom against all odds. Sonabai’s life – part of Tulika’s ‘Looking at Art’ series for children – was like a never-say-die flower.

How was the book born? As Vishakha puts it, “Stephen Huyler’s passionate sharings in his book on Sonabai provided eloquent reference. He brought her work into a fuller picture… I was overwhelmed by her story and the solitude of her journey. Her joyful creations spoke of a love of life that in reality had been denied, but could not be stolen from her.”

For Sonabai’s story echoes that of thousands of creative minds from rural India. Like other women from the Rajawar community, she was born to a landscape of dust and obscurity. At fourteen, she was married to Holi Ram, much older than her. He permitted her to pitch in with their fields or to use the well, but she was forbidden to meet anyone, even her own family. “Sonabai dared not disobey him. So she stayed like a prisoner in her own home. Alone with her son,” writes Vishakha.

Instead of succumbing to darkness or depression, Sonabai looked for light. Harking back to childhood memories of clay play, between chores she made for her little boy Daroga Ram “a monkey, a girl, Krishna playing the flute.” Her tools were born of the earth and necessity – a bristly brush from the chewed, blunt end of a stick, natural pigments of ground leaves and vegetables.

Sonabai’s journey is evoked simply yet vividly by both Vishakha’s text and Huyler’s brilliant photographs: “As the clay touched her fingers, and her fingers touched clay, something happened! Her heart leapt up, and a new light gleamed in her eyes… She suddenly remembered the days when she was carefree and young, when she had helped her mother smear cow dung and earth on the wall – how she would make zigzag or curly patterns with her fingers upon wet white lime, which was used to paint walls, and then decorate them with designs.”

Huyler’s images are like rich, dazzling lodes of Indian folk life. A hand with bangles etches lines on a clay wall, elemental yet elegant. Rice straw hair streams from a face yet unborn, as gnarled fingers shape eyes. A faceless woman paints a fashioned parrot in vivid green…

Similar to more urban artists like MF Husain and Jamini Roy, whose lives have been portrayed in the Tulika series, Sonabai’s tale too is both personal and universal. As her spirit began to soar, she created creepers and leaves in relief for the house Holi Ram built. To diffuse the harsh light that entered their home, she cobbled together fantastical lattices/jaalis of bamboo, twine and clay, embellished with lively human and animal figures.

Out of the blue, a team from Bhopal’s noted Bharat Bhavan for the arts came to Puhphutara. Though homes in the area were traditionally decorated, at Sonabai’s they found an unbelievable wonderland. As Huyler observed, “Everywhere around us was art. The columns, the walls, the doorframes, the windows, and beams and the baseboards – all alive with Sonabai’s humour, wit and remarkable eye for balance and form.” He researched her work for five years, resulting in an international exhibition in San Diego in 2009-10.

Some episodes touch the heart. As when the Bharat Bhavan team seek a sample to show their director in Bhopal, “They were so keen that Sonabai didn’t know how to refuse. But her heart broke. There were tears in her eyes when she saw them breaking off a piece of jaali to take back with them, along with the sculptures on it.”

The other villagers were just as astounded when they first stepped into Holi Ram’s house. One remarked, “Look, Sonabai has turned mud into gold!”

In another chapter of life when she was in her late 70s, Sonabai travelled and taught across India and abroad, accompanied only by Daroga Ram. By the time she passed away in 2007, Sonabai had passed her unique skills on to son, her daughter-in-law, even younger folks in their community. Thanks to her vision, their village was imprinted forever on the art map of India.

Vishakha captures the transition from village to world thus, “How did Sonabai feel, to be suddenly uprooted from her home, where she worked passionately, content to be appreciated by her son and no one else? Did she like going to cities, conducting workshops, training others in her village, getting written about in newspapers and books? Shy and awkward, Sonabai did it all. She didn’t complain all those years when she had to stay at home and she didn’t complain when she had to leave it.”

This deeply moving book is about Sonabai’s life as much as it is about dreaming big. It invites urban Indian children to look at rural life with curiosity and to respect its depth. Read with attention to detail, it is about the magic latent in everyday life. It calls out equally to children who are hooked to screen devices as much as to those who are led to craft bazaars and art galleries. Its potential audience includes schoolchildren, parents, art teachers and librarians.

To conclude, in Vishakha’s words, “Like her many beautiful figures that would emerge from a lump of clay, Sonabai’s art grew from simple beginnings, experimenting, evolving. In the small village, with nothing to work with except what she found around her, and in spite of all the difficulties she faced, her art continued to thrive. It is this spirit that stirs us, as much as her art. This, perhaps, is her true legacy.”

By Aditi De


Author: Vishakha Chanchani
Photographer: Stephen P. Huyler
32 pages
Rs 250.00
ISBN: 935046627-9
Tulika Publishers, 2014
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction
Age-group: 8+


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