First published: Fall 2009
Sonabai was alone for the first time in her life. At the age of 25 she was a virtual prisoner, locked in her house with no windows, forbidden to talk to or be seen by anyone, completely isolated. Married for ten years, she had been ostracised for most of them due to her barrenness. Then, when she had finally given birth to a son, her much older husband had locked her away. She could care for the two of them, cooking and cleaning, but she was not allowed to leave her home.
In her central Indian village, Sonabai's situation was unique. She had been raised in an extended family of 16: brothers, sisters and cousins all living together in one vibrant dwelling. Men and women were not segregated in her community. They each had specific roles defined by their culture, but they were able to converse with one another. Sonabai's seclusion was the result of her husband's neurotic jealousy.
Sonabai Rajawar had no artistic training. She later stated that her natal family was not creative. But the only toys she could give her infant son were those she made herself. In desperation, she dug clay from the edge of her well and used it to fashion toys for him to play with. She loved the process and her son enjoyed the results. Soon, Sonabai filled the rooms of their house with clay figures: horses, cows, goats, birds, and even human figures.
In the summer months it was unbearably hot inside the house: 46–52 °C. Sonabai was determined to find a way to cool down her environment.
She began shaving strips from the bamboo poles left over from construction, curling them into circles, tying these into grids, and joining them between the columns of her interior courtyard. She then covered the entire structure with a layer of clay, smoothing it into each form, thereby creating lattices that cast shadows on the inner recesses of her rooms and caught whatever winds they could. Finally, she added clay figures to the lattice – winding snakes up through the coils, perching parrots in some of the holes, a flute player here, a dancer there. Sonabai had invented an entirely new style of art.
Although carved lattices (called 'jali') are common in north Indian architecture, none existed within at least a ninety mile radius of Sonabai's secluded village and she had neither seen nor heard of them. With no access to the market, Sonabai spent months grinding spices, herbs, and minerals in her kitchen and experimenting with them as pigments. Making her own brushes, she painted the lattices white and the sculptures a broad variety of colours. During her years of isolation, she transformed her entire house: sculpted lattices stretched between columns, bas-reliefs filled empty spaces and figures peered down from the tops of walls, while base boards and doorframes tied everything together. Unlike most Indian decorative artists, Sonabai relished negative space. The entire assemblage was an unusual blend of complex design and simple understatement. All was infused with delightful imagination which made her home a wonderland of whimsy, colour and beauty.