Traditional floor art of Bengal

Traditional floor art of Bengal

Unique Patterns

One of my earliest childhood memories is that of Durga puja being celebrated in my grandfather’s house.

There was a special long room on one side of the courtyard where it took place. My sister and I watched in goggle-eyed astonishment as the rough lump of clay gradually took shape, day by day, into the gorgeous image of the goddess under the skilful touch of the potter.

My grandmother, mother, aunts and elder cousins were busy the entire month rolling up wicks for the lamps, making mountains of coconut and til laddoos of varied shapes to be
used as prasad later and other sweets and savouries for the 10-day long Navarathri comprising the worship of Goddess Durga. Just before the actual installation of the deity, they got busy decorating the floor with alpana — a typical floor art of Bengal — done with fine rice paste. I remember how lovely the place looked once it was complete!

Alpana, which must have originally started as a folk art, was and still continues to be an essential part of all celebrations in Bengal — pujas, weddings and all rituals dealing with celebrations. The word originated from the Sanskrit word “alimpan” which means “to coat”. This art form belongs to undivided Bengal, part of which is now Bangladesh.

Traditionally, it is supposed to be done with rice paste diluted to the consistency of thick milk. A small piece of fine cloth is dipped in the liquid and placed along the finger while the thumb presses it, making the liquid flow evenly as one draws the alpana with the finger.
Although it may sound complicated, it is quite simple really, and just needs a bit of practice. Alpana — especially done for a puja (Durga, Lakshmi, Jagadhatri, Annapurna, Saraswati et al) is usually in white alone as white is the symbol of purity.

The alpana also depicts certain symbols — lotus and lotus leaves, paddy, the feet of goddess Lakshmi and so on, all of which are incorporated into the main painting. During Lakshmi puja, for instance, one puts the symbol of Lakshmi’s feet in front of all the rooms, indicating that she is stepping in there. But this symbol is never put in the reverse, showing her to be stepping out! That would be a cardinal sin!

For pujas, the alpana is usually circular, starting with a lotus at the centre and then a border of lotus leaves. This basic pattern is extended further and further until it is as big as you want it. The deity is placed on the lotus at the centre. Normally, no rough sketching is done, as it is not meant to be geometrical. Besides, alpana painters are usually experts and manage to do it at one go without having to change or alter anything.

I remember my mother and aunts doing it together — one taking care of the central pattern and the other doing all the additional bits — until the floor of the entire room was covered in exquisite designs. For other festive occasions such as weddings, naming ceremony, etc., colour is often used, usually yellow and red and sometimes green for the leaves. But never black, as it is supposed to be inauspicious.

By the time my generation was into alpana, we mostly used chalk paste and paint brushes in lieu of rice paste and finger as it was easier to get and simpler to make. Drawing with the finger could be painful unless the floor was really smooth. But there was no hassle if a thick brush was used instead. We always had alpana at our college functions too.

Students from Shantiniketan were particularly adept at it and made some really awesome designs, artistic and elaborate, in the twinkling of an eye. In fact, it is fashionable to have alpana designs on embroidered saris and kurtas these days, especially those done in kantha stitch. Although the modern alpana has far more variety, people still use traditional symbols during pujas. Without the alpana to light up the room, a festival would seem flat indeed!

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