Morning breaks and the day begins like any other in Puhpatra, a remote, dusty village set amidst fields of rice paddies in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh. Women gather in doorways of weathered, white washed houses, nursing newborns and watching their children scamper about barefoot, throwing stones at a scattered pack of feral dogs. Men prepare for a back-breaking day of work in the fields planting or harvesting rice. Aromas of spice and vegetables waft from the houses and women chatter excitedly as they cook.
A young girl from the village will be married tomorrow and the elders and the young mothers speculate about the suitability of the groom, the bride’s wedding sari, and argue as to whether there’ll be enough food to last the weeklong celebration.
For most of us, marriage, starting a family, and other life-changing events signal the beginning of an exciting future of love, happiness, and companionship. Sonabai Rajawar’s arranged marriage to her husband, however, marked the beginning of a life lived in solitude, hidden from her large family and community for 15 years in her marital home.
Sonabai guessed she might have been 14 or 15 when she married at her parents’ request. As a new wife, she lived with her husband and in-laws, carrying out household chores and working disproportionately harder than the rest of the family. She felt under intense pressure to conceive a son and finally gave birth to Daroga Ram whom she affectionately called “Babu.” Babu’s birth relieved her of some of the strenuous duties in the household and Sonabai was finally freed from the taunt of baanjh, or “barren,” by her husband’s family.
However, after moving into their marital home, her husband became jealous and demanded that she not leave except on occasions when it was necessary to draw water from the well. She was prohibited from visiting her family and friends in the village. Adhering to his wishes, Sonabai stayed in the house, her living space a small, pressed dirt courtyard with one door and no windows. Sonabai’s husband worked long hours building houses for others in the village. Babu became her sole source of joy and companionship in an otherwise bleak and lonely existence.
To keep her infant son occupied, Sonabai molded a toy from clay, a horse with a round belly, legs made from small sticks, and a mane bound from straw. The figure was reminiscent of traditional images of Goddess Saraswati made by local potters for her village’s festivals. Sonabai felt great joy as she watched her son play with his toy. Soon enough, figurines and sculptures filled the house and Sonabai used the same sculpting techniques to transform parts of the house.
Using bamboo, she tied together woven circles within a frame and joined them to create a jali, akin to lattice. She coated the jali with a mixture of clay and cow dung, which, when dry, held it together. The screen cast a softer light into her house and displayed a myriad of patterns on the floor at certain times of day. Jali was not a common architectural detail in the Surguja district. Although women in her village traditionally decorated doorways to commemorate seasons and festivals throughout the year, Sonabai’s creations were unique. Her vision extended beyond traditional floral and geometric motifs to create entirely original designs, unlike anything seen previously in Indian art.
Sonabai continued to experiment with different materials to create bright and bold colors to decorate the jali. She used white lime left over from painting her house and, showing astounding resourcefulness, she experimented with spices, vegetables, and minerals to achieve bright and steadfast colors—green from leaves, yellow and red ochre from various spices, black from clay and burnt leaves, and blue from powder she used to whiten her linen.
Using this rainbow of colors, Sonabai decorated and embellished the jali with an array of dancing figures, Hindu icons and scenes from nature—figures of musicians playing under eaves, monkeys climbing trees and eating fruit, rows of women dancing, and Krishna frolicking with his consorts. Over time, Sonabai’s sculptures and decoration filled every doorway, pillar, wall, and baseboard in the house. She had transformed the interior of her house into a wonderland of color, texture, and light.
Sonabai’s brightly colored and whimsical creations seem born from a lightness and optimism that distanced her from her dire circumstances and provided a mental escape from the isolation she endured for so many years. Molding clay sculptures from the earth around her affirmed her relationship with her environment and, fundamentally, with nature, strengthening her spirit and combating what might have otherwise been overwhelming loneliness.
Members of Sonabai’s family and community are unwilling to shed light on the reasons for her husband’s decision to open their house to visitors, after 15 years of enforced isolation, in 1968. Many people marveled at her creations and, decades later, Sonabai finally returned to her family when she was in her late 70s. She wept upon meeting old friends and was deeply moved when women of the family kneeled before her and washed her feet in a heartfelt gesture of honor and respect.
In 1983, Sonabai’s world changed when a team of field workers from the Bharat Bhavan, a museum in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, visited after being told of her art by one of the neighboring craftsmen. They left with a portion of the jali from Sonabai’s wall for public display and commissioned her to create sculptures for an exhibition at the museum.
In 1985, Sonabai was awarded the President’s Award, the highest national recognition of artistic achievement in India. Following this accolade, she was invited to America as a visiting artist at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Sonabai later exhibited in the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, and her installations became a permanent exhibition at the National Handlooms and Handicrafts Museum in Delhi.
It was at this museum that the renowned author, cultural anthropologist, and photographer Stephen Huyler met Sonabai and was captivated by her creations. Huyler visited Sonabai’s house in 2001 and spent two weeks with the family interviewing Sonabai and recording the process of her self-taught artistic style.
The collaboration has resulted in the astounding exhibition, “Sonabai: Another Way Of Seeing” at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Wall panels created by Sonabai frame the entrance to the exhibition and large chiffon panels of festival dancers hang throughout the exhibition, suspended in a frenzy of color and motion. Thirty-nine of Sonabai’s sculptures, along with 51 works created by artists influenced by her works, are featured in the exhibition as well as jali embellished with figures of Krishna and Rada, birds, and small animals.
Huyler’s photography and clips from his accompanying film, which received the Milagro Award for “Best Short Film” at the Santa Fe Film Festival in December, complement Sonabai’s pieces, providing an environment that re-creates the intensely private world she inhabited. Sonabai passed away August 17, 2007, however, her work has been immortalized in her work, Huyler’s documentation, and the art of her son, Daroga Ram. He effectively became her chela, or disciple, over the years, carefully observing and learning her techniques and adapting them to his own style.
He and his wife, Rajenbai, continue the legacy of his mother’s artistic skill. Rajenbai became a great friend to Sonabai during her later years, awakening her to the joys of companionship after an eternity of solitude. The couple embody Sonabai’s eternal message of strength of spirit and champion her legacy for the wonder of the world.
Jennifer Marshall is a freelance writer focusing on Indian and Islamic art and culture, and has traveled throughout India. She is a regular contributor to Epic India webzine and has published previously with India Currents.
“Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing” exhibits through Sept. 5. Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, San Diego. $7 general; $5 seniors; $4 youth/students/military; children under 6 and members free. (619) 239-0003 ext. 107. www.mingei.org.