Santokba's Scrolls


Feb 8, INDIA (SUN) — Late-in-life artist creates amazing legacy of devotional paintings.

The odds were against her. She was 65, illiterate and was not exactly rolling in wealth. And yet, Santokba Mataji took the painting brush in hand, responding to an inner call. What took shape from her brush was amazing. She painted Vedic stories in sequence on cloth, creating a 54 feet long scroll on Ramayana that was promptly bought by Air India. Then she did a series on the stories from Mahabharata. This was followed by another complex and beautiful Mahabharata scroll, measuring 1.2 km (1,200 m), which was purchased by the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, who placed it in their archives for posterity.

The Mahabharata scroll acquired by IGNCA tells only half of the epic story, up to Vana Parva (the forest chapter). The scroll begins with the scene of Rishi Vyasa dictating the story to Lord Ganesha. Santokba sold this scroll in 1993 to raise money that would allow her to continue her work.

Santokba was born into an agricultural family. Widowed at a young age, she had to work very hard to bring up her three children. She worked as farm hand, did stone crushing, and many such daily wager odd jobs. Her eldest son studied and trained to be an artist, and it was through him that she awoke to the canvas. Santokba began spending 8 to 10 hours a day painting, and while painting she sings folk songs in her native Gujarati dialect.

Santokba refers to no text, but rather draws and paints the story of Mahabharata as she heard from her elders. Her representations are vivid and communicate a great sense of devotion to the viewer. In a style all her own, she has left the eyes Dhritarashtra blank to indicate that he was blind, while Shakuni's eyes are represented one black and one white. Her figurines of Gods and Goddesses are indicated by their easily identifiable symbols, like Shiva with a snake around the neck, Krishna with His flute, Rama with a bow etc.

Santokba uses only vegetable dyes that come from Rajasthan, and they're quite expensive. Her children have supported her, sometimes even borrowing money to keep her in paints. Noted painter K K Hebber, after seeing her Mahabharata, said he was amazed and much impressed by Santokba's naivety and sense of colour and design.

Santokba sold her Mahabharata scroll to IGNCA at nearly half the price she could have received from collectors. In her simplicity and commitment to the cultural heritage of India, she preferred to see that the scroll remain within India, and IGNCA became the fortunate home for this incredible epic painted work.

In a fashion similar to Santokba'a another fascinating rendition of scrollwork type manuscript of Gita-Govinda can be seen here. This scroll was done by the Rajasthani artist Sh. Pradeep Mukherjee in the Phad style. While more formal in painting style compared to Santokba's naive Gujarati style, is certainly expresses a similar devotional mood. Here, the entire 292 slokas of Gita-Govinda were done on a single cloth, much like Santokba's Mahabharata and Ramayana works. The entire series on the Mukherjee scroll can be found in the Editorials Index, December 2005, Gita Govinda series #21 through #30.


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