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Laid out with meaning

Trisha Bhattacharya, Feb 16, 2014: 19:16 IST
elementary: An animal-themed 'mandana' wall painting.
Beautiful forms on mud walls, floors and certain other spaces depicting nature, human life and wildlife, complemented by compatible designs and geometric patterns with certain beliefs in mind. These have translated life into breathtaking shapes and colours.

And ultimately into earthy, rustic and dainty creations. Areas in certain parts of India, especially Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, are home to women who traditionally draw these paintings called mandana, as a sign of prayer, protection and jubilation.

Negativity at bay

Blending with mud surfaces, special natural colours assign a holistic meaning to symbolism; wherein motifs of flowers, mythological figures, animals, birds like cows, peacocks, and parakeets, and a variety of other scenes from daily existence make up mandana paintings, which differ from the alpona of Bengal, or rangoli or Warli paintings, but similarly commemorate festive occasions. Therefore, they are a choice that locals make to enhance their surroundings to depict incoming prosperity and to erase any negative energy or evil powers that could spoil their environment.

Origins and history of these paintings may invite different views, but their presence does allude to a sequential or perhaps a non-linear story behind their progress and practice. Unfortunately, concrete set-ups replacing mud homes in villages are causing original mandanas to wither. Some researchers and scholars closely associated with the art share their endeavours and knowledge with us here.

Painting progression

Dr Madan Meena, who has a PhD dissertation on this subject, has documented paintings specifically by Meena women, after visiting more than a 100 villages in the past 15 years. He shares, “It is not possible to accurately trace the history of these paintings. But I see its links in prehistoric rock paintings. The creative impulse of human beings led to them embellishing their surroundings from the get go. Thus, with the development of civilisation, when the cave man took to agriculture and started living in settlements, they continued this creative expression in daily life, and this gradually became a necessary part of their traditions.

Paintings by Meena women are characteristically different from other styles, for, these are nature paintings and don’t have a narrative. The motifs of animals, birds, insects, plants, flowers and objects like bicycle, car and bus — all find their place in them. There is no ground line, so, all the motifs float freely. These paintings are an intrinsic part of the mud-house architecture and not separate. The colour used is simply white chalk paste painted or drawn with khejur (date-palm) brush or finger tip over a red-ochre or yellow-ochre mud surface. It is done both on walls and floors of a house. The drawings on the floor are mostly geometrical, while those on the walls are spontaneous forms of birds, animals and plants.”

Lakhi Chand Jain, a Mumbai-based designer, has been a scholar of the ritual of mandana for the past 25 years. He learnt the art from his grandmother and mother. Although, traditionally, mandana was done on the walls of mud houses and in courtyards, it was not feasible to transplant slabs of these surfaces. So, he applied canvas to express mandana, giving it newer shapes using modern means. He links the roots of mandana to ancient periods like the Mohenjo-daro and Harappa era, Aryan’s Vedic tradition and the great treasure of the Veda-Puranas.

‘Mandana’ types

He adds, “This simple visual folk art form is closely related to the science of vaastu, beauty, holy charms and spiritualism. Mandana paintings can be divided into two types depending on their content — vallari pradhan & aakruti pradhan. The vallari mandanas consist of flowers, plants, birds and animals, which are painted only on kachcha walls.

Aakruti mandanas depict geometric forms, expressing the five elements of Panchmahabhuta (universal prakruti, nature) — triangle (agni-fire); square (prithvi-earth); circle (jal-water); dot (aakash-ether) and crescent curve (vayu-air) and non-living objects, which are painted on kachcha floor. Traditionally, geru (terracotta red earthen stone colour), pili mitti (yellow ochre soil), hirmich (crimson-red colour powder) and khadiya (paste of limestone-white chalk) were used as colouring. This art is not taught in any art or design school in India, and there is no specific syllabus designed on mandana.”

With more nurturing, mandana hopefully will flourish in a sacred manner, and its symbolic representation will be understood in depth.

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