The House that Sonabai Built by Vishakha Chanchani, photographs by Stephen P. Huyler
Married at 14 to a much older man, Sonabai spent the first decade of wifehood cooking and cleaning for her demanding in-laws. When the couple moved to a tiny village to be on their own, Sonabai had far less to do, but she became a prisoner in her own home: “She went nowhere, and nobody came to the house” because her husband would not allow any visitors, not even her own family. Her only company was her new son.
Washing clothes one day, she pulled out the damp clay nearby to make toys for her son … but also “perhaps some people, who could become her friends, whom she could talk to sometimes!” And so her journey as an artist began. “She had a natural feel for the clay, and it responded to her fingers, as though delighted to be handled by her.” From musical men to women in colorful saris to playful monkeys and more, Sonabai worked the clay: “Once you begin to create, nothing seems impossible.”
She changed the very walls of her home inside and out, until “[h]er home became her sculpture studio, and over time, an art gallery. It got happily filled with people, plants, animals, birds and snakes, all living in harmony with each other … Her home was vibrant and alive.” So much so that “the world found Sonabai, the woman who had lived for so long in solitude.” And she would go out in the world to teach her unique art until she could travel no more. Sonabai’s life story remains astonishing and remarkable: “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.”
Indian author Vishakha Chanchani – an arts educator for over 25 years – recalls her own introduction to Sonabai’s art at New Delhi’s Crafts Museum when she herself was an art student: “I was overwhelmed by her story and the solitude of her journey,” Chanchani reveals in her front flap author bio. “Her joyful creations spoke of a love of life, that in reality had been denied, but could not be stolen away from her.” While Chanchani presents Sonabai’s experiences in easy prose for the youngest readers, photographer Stephen P. Huyler gives her story the vibrant imagery that speaks volumes. Huyler, an American cultural anthropologist and historian, has been documenting Sonabai’s story for almost 30 years since he met her in 1986 – in print, in a documentary film, and an exhibit that was presented at San Diego’s Mingei International Museum in 2009. Here, his collected visual history provides readers immediate connection.
Thanks to indie Indian publisher Tulika Books, the youngest would-be artists and aficionados have the opportunity to delightedly explore the house that Sonabai built – again and again. By book’s end, learning to create something spectacular from virtually nothing is truly inspiration for us all.
Readers: Children, Middle Grade
Published: 2014 (India), 2015 (United States)