Rangoli, a colourful science of symmetry

Rangoli-making is a serious business in my locality. Each morning, swish-swoosh go the brooms as front yards are swept and washed clean. Then come out the small bowls of white powder, and within minutes, women adeptly lay beautiful patterns on the floor.

Sometimes red brick powder accompanies the white, enhancing the graphic effect. However, it is during the festive season that the best art is on display: elaborate patterns encompassing designs of flowers, vines, motifs, and images of deities are laid out. Plain white or coloured, they are a visual treat, leaving me in awe.

Humans have communicated through symbols since ancient times. Symbolism exists in every culture and takes precedence at ceremonies; reportedly, some native African groups lay specific patterns to attract animals for hunting.

Rangolis are symbolic representations too, prevalent as an art form in India, and a few other Asian countries. Known by different names, they have roots in the Sanskrit word ‘rangavalli’ (colourful vines). With spiritual and cultural significance attached to them, festivals are incomplete without rangolis.

Our culture assigns an essential status to rangolis as they are believed to ward off evils, bring peace and prosperity to the dwelling. Specific designs chosen for prayer areas are said to radiate positive energy. However, there is more to rangolis than meets the eye. It’s all science!

While rangolis occupy the artistic platform, one cannot but be surprised to realise that there is incredible science hidden behind it. This daily ritualistic practice in many parts of India incorporates a profound understanding of neuroscience.

A striking aspect of an orthodox rangoli is dots — specifically 108 — joined by curved lines to form a symmetrical design. From an artistic point of view, symmetry represents order, harmony and serenity. Symmetry is an innate quality of nature seen from the single-celled to complex organisms. This stable form of visual property — called visual harmonic — is well perceived by our brain, and we respond to it immediately.

It was Ernst Mach who first studied human response to symmetry. His research also revealed that humans are more sensitive to vertical symmetry. Further studies in 2002 observed that our brain is wired to perceive symmetry either consciously or unconsciously and forms a universal element in all that we construct — art to architecture.

We are familiar with a form of the symmetrical sound wave: music. The little research available on harmonics shows that when a longitudinal soundwave agitates particles on a membrane, they settle into symmetrical patterns, much like the rangoli designs. This direct phonetic link between sound waves and visual patterns gives rise to different waveforms producing different designs. The study of such harmonic waveforms is called Cymatics. Conversely, the fluid, symmetrical compositions of rangolis and symbols form visual harmonics which the brain perceives immediately.

Dr Christopher Tyler even mapped the brain centres that respond to visual harmonics using fMRI. His study reveals that the visual cortex or the occipital lobe activates when one perceives symmetrical patterns. His research goes on to explain that we are capable of discerning symmetry in an object in less than 0.05 seconds, showing that our brain is hard-wired for symmetry.

Just as symmetrical notes induce a pleasing effect on the mind, responding to visual harmonic has a calming effect on the brain. Neuroscience addresses Cymatics with interest as it has a soothing effect on the mind. Some studies indicate therapeutic qualities to it. Another research shows that rapid, efficient perceptual processing of symmetrical objects produces a happy hedonic feeling.

Profound wisdom

Rangolis are geometrically balanced optical waveforms and drawing them is no simple task. To reproduce a symmetrical pattern, one must actively use both the right and the left part of the brain, simultaneously running the coarse powder through the fingers, which together activate nerve centres in the brain.

This intricate art has been mentioned in the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, wherein the people drew rangavallis to welcome their kings and express their joy. This amalgam of science and tradition reflects the profound and deep scientific knowledge our ancestors possessed. What they found was made available to the larger populace through simple traditions and rituals to benefit from — as an art form to be practised.

So why not let every festive season inspire us to try our hand at drawing some traditional rangolis? As we know, this indulgence has plenty on offer and could be just what the doctor ordered to counteract the perils of a hectic lifestyle!

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Rangoli, a colourful science of symmetry

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