Monday, November 10, 2008

About Alpona

Alpona or alpana is a common Indian folk art form, primarily deployed in decorating both the inside and outside of homes, temples and sometimes public buildings on religious and festive occasions. Using simple ingredients, rice powder emulsion, vegetable dye and a strip of cloth formed in a wick, the techniques of Alpona have been passed down for generations. While its sister forms are known by different names, such as Rangoli and Kolam, and used in other parts of India, Alpona is very specific to the eastern Indian subcontinent, West Bengal and Bangladesh in particular.
The name is derived from the Sanskrit word Alimpan, which literally means whitening or painting (of walls, floors etc. on festive occasions), which, in turn, derives from a root that means smearing, coating, plastering or anointing. It is believed that Alimpan predates even the Vedas1 in primitive religions and cult practices where the local inhabitants in various parts of India used paints and scribbling to appease their gods.

The Vedas themselves were full of descriptions of many rituals and as time went by, local rituals and religious practices like Alimpan merged into this body, increased the collection and eventually permeated the folk traditions all over India. Alimpan itself spread by breaking off into many regional tributaries, becoming Alpona in Eastern India, Rangoli in Western India and Kolam in Southern India and was further diversified and enriched by the numerous subcultures of each area. It appears the derivatives of Alimpan flourished along a belt bracing the seaside villages of India, slowly becoming scarce as one traveled inland away from the seas.
Alpona is a required element of religious occasions or social occasions of joy or festivity, such as weddings, Hindu communions, harvest celebrations and pujas2. Practiced primarily by womenfolk using techniques based on local customs, Alpona patterns are meant to adorn the venue of celebration. A form of worship based upon the long standing belief that the artist would express her deepest desires to the one who may fulfill these desires, an Alpona design placed at the seat of worship ensured her desires would come true. To the uneducated, nearly illiterate women who used to decorate the platforms of worship, this unspoken principle was a strong motivator for preserving the art form for almost 4000 years throughout history.

The basic Alpona consists of a symmetric design with occasional breaks in the symmetry that serve as an element of surprise, making the design unique and appealing. The prime elements of the design are simple geometrical forms, such as triangles, squares and circles and these anchor the design and give it a subtle character and a utilitarian aspect. To these elements are added many motifs, some are common across the region, some are very unique to the subculture. The elements in the Alpona design are either procedural or decorative: elements and structures of the first set are required by tradition to be present in segments of the Alpona whereas a good part of the second set is left to the imagination, training and ability of the Alpona artist. So, in a sense, an Alpona is somewhat like an Indian classical music composition where the structure is specified by the raga3 being performed, but the performer can freely improvise within that structure.
Alpona has invariably been practiced by the womenfolk of the community, primarily agrarian, and the motifs used in Alpona reflect this -- sun, crescent moon, paddy, plow, fish, betel leaves, flowers, lotus, conch shells, ducks and flowering creepers of many varieties. A peacock may show up, as may owls if the Alpona is being used on the occasion of the worship of goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, who uses owls are her carriers. Little footprints often point the way for the goddess Lakshmi to find her way from the entrance foyer to the special seat set up in her honor. Sometimes, elements are symbolic and may not have any relation to reality and are simply a form of artistic expression by the artist.
A level surface is required for Alpona such as floors and steps inside the house or in the atrium, rarely to walls and ceilings. For weddings, Alpona decorates wooden seats, rattan trays and other utensils used in the rituals; for religious ceremonies it is used to decorate the special seat of the idol, the columns in the room of worship and special earthenware used in the ceremonies. Alpona is painted in most applications, unlike Rangoli, where designs formed by piling and spreading multicolored powders are more prevalent. Alpona is usually white, the medium, known as pituli, being derived from the paste obtained by finely grinding a special type of white rice softened by soaking in cold water. The base may be colored sometimes with organic dyes, such as turmeric for yellow, spinach for green or charcoal for black, but such use is rare in Alpona.
The process of Alpona painting is very simple and unequivocally freehand. Four fingers of the dominant hand grasp a small piece of rag dipped in the pituli and the middle finger draws the design with the pituli kept flowing from the soaked rag by pressure from the other fingers. Before launching, the artist forms a broad picture in her mind of how the Alpona should look and then the painting starts, almost always from the center. She then fleshes out the design on all sides, making sure that the essential elements are placed correctly with the prescribed orientations. She also embellishes the design around them with the creative aesthetic elements, the proverbial moment where the artist expresses her desires!

With rapid urbanization and demise of the age-old traditional agrarian economy in India and the decrease in religious festivals and rituals, the concomitant weakening of crafts including Alpona should not come as a surprise. Gone are the farming villages and their womenfolk who devotedly practiced Alpona, expressing their desires in earnest and hoping for fulfillment. In its place are mass produced stickers, hastily placed on religious occasions, the meaning usually lost on younger generations.

But, even if Alpona dies as a ritualistic practice, the art form of Alpona does not need to die. While the many stairs, floors and Lakshmi's seats may be devoid of traditional Alpona, an effort to make it more secular and open to individual expression and evolution will allow Alpona to evolve into different incarnations and enjoy a much deserved revival. Artists at Shantiniketan4, the school founded by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel-laureate poet from West Bengal have made a lot of progress in these directions, as have Muslim Bangladeshi artists. Alpona designs of OM home specifically address this need and successfully bring this venerable age-old form into twenty-first century by integrating it with the daily lifestyle of the modern home -- pillow covers, linens, bed sheets, wall murals and more with only imagination being the limit.

Help keep traditions alive. Make your home an OM home.

 Our Wedding Invitation

Photos Courtesy of Claudine Sauvé

1. Vedas are the ancient Indo-Aryan scriptures dating back to 1500 BC, considered to be the birth of Hinduism.
2. Pujas are occasions of worship where Hindus perform rituals to show respect to a particular God.
3. Ragas are frameworks for musical composition usually comprised of five or more musical notes.
4. Shantiniketan, north of Kolkata in West Bengal and centered around a University has long been a haven for artists and creative minds.

1. Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. Bharatkosh Vol 1, Calcutta.
2. Sarkar, Sebanti. Stick-on art for Alpona. The Telegraph. 6 October 2006.
3. Alim, M Rafiqul. Alpana (ritual painting). Banglapedia.
4. Aroon, Preeti. "Sari Weaving Unravels in India". Foreign Policy. 30 July 2008.

Thank you to my father, Sumit Roy, for his research and write up of Alpona.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?

OmMommy said...

Beautiful post. Beautiful materials. Will be shopping with you soon. Much love & light.