Drawing auspicious motifs on the floor is a practice seen across India among various communities. Called rangoli, kolam, aripana, they belong to the 'folk art' genre that combines religious, aesthetic and social expressions.
One such art is alpana (or alpona), the ritualistic floor drawing practised in Bengal. Usually, alpana is drawn during Hindu religious festivals and social occasions (barring funerals). The traditional Bengal alpana is white in colour and fashioned by women using a water-based paste made from the rice kernel of unprocessed, sun-dried paddy called atop chal.
Tiny pieces of clean cotton cloth or cotton ball are dipped into the paste and held in between the fingers. It is then pressed to release the liquid to draw the pattern on the floor. In its simplest form, alpana is a freehand drawing of either ornamental or geometrical patterns. Then there are motifs of trees, flowers, water bodies, animals, etc.
In Bengal, women observe brotos (or vratas) on various occasions. Some of these rituals require particular alpanas. The Bhaduli broto is observed post monsoon. In the bygone days, travelling great distances was a task; more so during and after the rains. So, after the monsoon, the womenfolk here would pray for the safe return of their menfolk. Hence, alpana patterns of boats, rivers, dangerous animals, thorny bushes - anything that would put the men at risk - took form.
There is no formal training for drawing alpanas. It is a tradition that has been passed on from one generation to another. Nowadays, many urban homes prefer to buy the fashionable sticker sheets with intricate alpana designs. While the concept of alpana is still largely enmeshed in religious sentiments, Santiniketan is known to be the first to liberalise it. Even today, students of Santiniketan feature elaborate alpanas in their social functions and festivals.
Recently, local artists from Fulia, a town in Nadia district, drew a two-and-a-half-km-long alpana on the road, on the final day of Jagadhatri Puja. Kolkata also witnessed a mammoth alpana at the Salt Lake Stadium during the recently held Under-17 FIFA World Cup.
In another effort, Rabi Biswas of Nadia, who learnt the art from his grandmother, has been researching on the subject, and has been collecting motifs associated with the city's broto observations. One can only hope that this folk art will last long.