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Rangoli – The Art of Floor Painting

Rangoli is one of earliest evidences of painting in India. The earliest record of rangoli or floor painting is found in the Puranas and has been referred to as one of the 64 arts.

According to a legend recorded in Chitra Lakshana, the earliest treatise on Indian painting, a king and his kingdom were steeped in sorrow at the death of the high priest’s son. Everybody prayed to Lord Brahma, who moved by the prayers, asked the king to paint a portrait of the boy on the floor so that he could breathe life into it. And with that the art of floor painting came to life.

Art in India was a form of worship. It was never art for arts sake. Its practice (sadhana) was a part of a spiritual process. An individual drew nourishment through art for his mental and spiritual life. And that is how rice, flour and flowers were transformed into picturesque offerings to God in the form of floor painting.

In the absence of canvas and brushes the mud floor and indigenous materials life rice powder and petals were used. Devotion and artistic yearning were thus transformed into visuals. Rangoli draws its very sustenance from festivals. Decorating the floor on auspicious occasions also creates a feeling of well-being.

A must for auspicious occasions, floor painting was part of everyday life. Mud floors were made attractive with a painting at the doorstep. These painting were also a sign of welcome. The dinning room where everybody sat on the floor to have meals was decorated and the area where the leaf plate was to be kept was also bordered with a design. In fact even the mud stoves were cleaned every morning and evening and decorated with designs. This was a preserve of the womenfolk, who often sang as they drew, for each design had a song which described the pattern and the deity in whose honour the painting was being made. Women were trained in this art from childhood and in some part of India, the new bride was expected to draw a design on the threshold of her new home.

In the art of floor painting the central design is the symbolic one denoting the deity, the festival or the theme. Common motifs are lotus, fish, birds, snakes etc. which emphasise the oneness of man and beast. Most of the designer are circular indicative of the endlessness of time. In Bengal in order to illustrate this concept they draw a sheshnag (king cobra) – a picture of a snake begins at the mouth of another and this goes on in circles, representing eternity. The sun, moon and other zodiac signs are also common themes for floor painting. Layered with symbolism is the lotus denoting Goddness Lakshmi, the unfolding of life, the heart or the wheel.

In the Himalayan region the seat of Lakshmi consists of two interfaced tringles signifying also the deity of learning, Sarswati. Encircling this is a 24-petal lotus flower border, the outer circle being decorated with Lakshmi’s footprints repeated in four corners. Sometimes the lotus petals are made in a triangular shape for variety. In north Bihar Lakshmi’s feet are drawn at the door, the toes pointing inwards to indicate her entrance. The lotus in full bloom with its numerous petals is symbolic of a life of purposefulness and force. Again in Andhra Pradesh there is an eight-petal lotus (ashtadal kamal) and many geometric patterns forming the lotus. In Tamil Nadu the hridaya kamalam is an eight-pointed star meaning lotus of the heart. In Maharasthra too the lotus is a basic motif and designs like shankh kamal – shell lotus and thabak which means salver is in the shape of an eight-petal lotus with straight lines elaborated with curving lines to give it the appearance of a salver. In Gujarat alone there are said to be 1001 variations of the lotus which are drawn during Diwali, the festival when Goddness Lakshmi is worshipped. Other motifs are swastikas and conch shells.

All over the southern part of India the harvest festival is marked by gaiety and prosperity. The patterns drawn are peripheral. Most designs are basically geometric patterns formed with dots and lines to make squares, circles, swastikas, lotus, trident, fish, conch shell footprints, creepers, trees bear testimony both to individual genius and community participation and many work for days together on single design.

The reasons contributing to the survival of this art inspite of external influences are manifold and lie deeply entrenched in tradition. But one among them, seemingly simple in nature but having deeper connotations, is that floor painting requires for its raw materials mainly edibles like rice flour, pulse and leaves. As these materials were never in short supply, the women of India nurtured this creative activity without any problem or dependence on anybody. An element of symbolism is however found here too. All over India, floor paintings are essentially white in colour. White is a symbol of peace, purity and tranquility. The material used is rice flour or rice paste, because rice to all Indians is a sign of prosperity. Yet another symbol of prosperity is the colour yellow. Turmeric yellow or ochre is also often used to fill in the white outlines. More often however, vermillion is used. Vermillion, is considered auspicious. Also used are peagreen and rust brown. The most colourful floor paintings are the mandanas of Rajasthan. In Kerala too, they are colourful. Here flowers and petals are used to colour the motifs. Generally earth and vegetable dyes are used and for the brush, the fingertips, or sometimes sticks wound with rag or cotton. In the south an instrument called the kuzlal is used. It is a cylindrical drum pierced with holes in a particular design, pulled along the floor like a lawn mower, it leaves behind lines forming the pattern. It is very small in size ranging from 4 “to 6” depending on the design. Today zinc oxide and paint brushes are also used. As floors have changed from mud to mosaic and tiles, materials too have changed. Transfers which can be easily stuck on the desired area re gaining popularity. This tradition continues while the art grows to suit the changing needs of society. In areas like Kumaon however, external influences can still be zeroed down to nil. In the south one finds that newer innovations have further strengthened the use of kolams.

Phool kolam as it is known in Kerala, is made at the entrance of temples particularly. The design has a central flower bed is outlined with rice powder. In the districts of Tamil Nadu kolam still has great significance and is drawn on either side of the road. The road is divided into two halves and on festive occasions both sides are full of intricate designs.

Traveling northwards one notices a great similarity in the floor paintings of Madhya Pradesh and certain parts of Bihar. Referred to as mandanas in Madhya Pradesh and mandal in Bihar, they have found a mention in many Grahassastras and Sanskara Ratnas. A special one in Madhya Pradesh is made at the entrance to the house on a new moon night as the monsoon ends, in the form of several stylized fruits and leaves, done in ochre and white lines with an olive green background which symbolises fecundity. On Holi, triangular patterns of a drum sacred to the deity are made in which the double outlines are filled in by tiny lines while the body is filled with smaller dots and lines after each is divided into dimunitive triangles. Yet another distinctive style is the Madhubani which means forest of honey and is a village of Darbhanga district in north Bihar. The paintings also known as dhuli chitra or dust paintings are made with rice paste. Geometrical designs as also highly stylized figures and motifs such as Laskshmi’s feet, the lotus as mentioned earlier are drawn. Perhaps the most colourful of floor paintings are found in Rajastjan – in dark shades like blue, black, chocolate, green on a bright crimson ground. Here squares are drawn on ceremonies while polygons are for festivals.

Thus reflecting regional beliefs and aesthetics based on a common spiritual plane the art of floor painting is one which has survived all inflences and retained and transmitted the spirit of Indian life. Its execution speaks of skill, its conception of imagination. The regularity and extent of its practice is demonstrative of the power of the philosophy behind it and its existence all over India confirms, the synchrony of Indian thought.