Alpana – Bengal’s Heritage Art
Every state in India has its own form of folk art and craft. At times the medium of expression is textile, at times it can be on metals, but there happens to be another unique form of art that is hand drawn in form of line drawing. The effect that such hand painted unique art presents is just stupendous! And this art form is the famous Alpona of Bengal. What is known as Alpona in Bengal, is popularly known as Rangoli in other states. But Bengal’s Alpona is very different from Rangoli and is unique in its visual expression and quality. It is not just another art form or line drawing, rather it is the image of life. It reflects the common man’s prayers, wishes and celebrations.
Alpona is not really a part of urban lifestyle, or the para culture of Bengal’s cities, rather it is found in the courtyards of tribal villages. It is part and parcel of rural life and is not just another art form, rather it is a reflection of the ever-flowing artistic expression of rural Bengal’s womenfolk and their prayers for their families and well-being of human race. Though as part of institutional art, men also give alpona and this art form is practiced by male artists, but in villages, it is the women, the mothers and sisters, who express their inner artistic feelings through their alponas.
Researchers believe the word Alaona comes from the Sanskrit word Alimpon. A-limpon or ‘lepon’ means mixing and spreading in Bengali. As per dictionary, the art form painted with the help of pituli (a mass of cotton dipped in paste of rice or flour) on the temple floor or in houses is called Alpona. The historical significance of Alpona is immense and this art form dates back to ancient ages. In the ancient Harappan town of Kalibangan, historians unearthed clay pots and pans that had drawings of paddy sheaves on them. Similar sheaves are drawn as alpona motifs in Bengal. Other images seen on various clay utensils of Indus Valley civilization have a great resemblance to the alpona motifs popularly used in Bengal.
Not just ancient India, similar art form had crossed the boundaries of Mohenjodaro, Kalibangan and Lothal and reached greater part of Asia. Even in Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations, archaeologists have unearthed pottery that have similar line drawn images. While in Crete and Roman civilizations, similar motifs are found on textiles.
Well-known artist Abanindranath Tagore said: “Every plant motif drawn in Bengal’s alpona art has a significance. Bengali women get their alpona ideas from nature, from various forms of plant life they see around in villages and have created different alpona motifs like kola lata, khunti lata, kolmi lata, chalta lata, shankhya lata. I find a great similarity between images found in ancient Crete and Greek art and the patterns of the Shankhya (conch), popularly used as an alpona motif. This Shankhya or Shankhya lata motif of Bengal is so vibrant and detailed, that it is unparallel and found nowhere else in the world.”
Abanindranath Tagore has also thrown light on alpona motifs that look like patterns of a conch or ripples of water and said that European researchers have different views about them. Some say these motifs originated in Egypt, some say in Greece. Though none of their art forms trace the minute details that Bengal’s alpona does. In this context one can bring in the Sankha, a special form of bangle worn by most married women of Bengal. This Sankha is an intrinsic part of the attire of Ma Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) and also of Bengal’s married women. Other than Sankha, one gets to see motifs resembling koris (small shells) that were extensively used in ancient India in the barter trade system in place of coins. Motifs like Shankhalata and Kori are used in very ancient form of India art.
Then comes undivided Bengal’s world famous textile Muslin. In his book Banglar Brata (Page 85), Abanindranath Tagore writes that history of Bengalis is quite ancient. Since the queens of Egypt and Greece wore clothes made from Muslin that came from undivided Bengal, one can assume that Bengal and Bengalis were very much present in those ancient days as were their art forms. And who knows, maybe a Dhakai saree from Bengal with Shankhalata alpona motifs had made its way to ancient Greece! So even if we cannot trace the exact time and date of the origin of alpona, it is clear that Bengal’s very own alpona art was accepted across ancient world and dates back to ancient times.
Like Bengal’s Alpona, different states of India have similar folk art forms known by different names. In Bihar it is called Aripon, in Orissa it is known as Jhunti, in Gujarat known as Sathiya, in central India and Rajasthan it is called Mandan or Mandana and in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh it is known as Rangoli. In Eastern Uttar Pradesh it is known as Sanha, in Himachal Pradesh as Sanjhi, in Haryana as Lithunua, in Andhra Pradesh as Mungli, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala as Kolam and in Karnataka as Chittara. The Mandan art form used in Rajasthan and Central India was used in Bengal’s alpona even during the Vedic age.
In Banglar Alponar Chinho Ebong Prateek, writer Dipankar Parui writes in Atharvaveda among 72 items mentioned, there is a part that speaks about Mandalani where alpona motifs are drawn around the Yagna platform. Apart from this, alpona motifs were found in various eras in various forms in the kingdoms of Bengal’s kings – from motifs on coins to tools to victory pillars and during Copper Age. Motifs resembling Bengal’s intrinsic Alpona is also found in the cave paintings of Susunia Hills, during the reign of King Sasanka and in the kingdom of Maynamati.
Bengal’s Alpona is also a way of life and is intrinsically a part of our prayers, our heart’s wishes, our sacrifice to the ultimate Lord. It is a form of asking for blessings for everyone, wish for a son, something that flows down Bengal’s Brata katha and finds place in Chandimangal Kavya and in the Puranas. Though Bengal’s Alpona is an artwork, it is closely related to various rituals or brata, where womenfolk, married or unmarried use alponas as an expression of their piousness. Abanindranath Tagore writes about this relation and says: “The closeness between alponas and Bengal’s rituals show they both were born from similar human feelings… there is a bond between the two that keeps both alive. And that happens to be human emotion.” (Banglar Brata, Page 81)
Incidentally, to follow rituals one needs to be sincere, needs to have patience and respect just like one needs to follow while giving an alpona. That’s why often it is said that a ritualistic alpona reflects the inner dedication of the one who is giving it and following the ritual through the depths of the heart. Else the beauty of the ritual gets lost. The lines drawn aesthetically with rice or flour paste are not just drawings, but go deep within the character of a society. Major part of expression comes from an agrarian society and the daily life of farmers. Like lotus motif is widely used in alponas, so are paddy sheaves, paddy stalks and grains that are very important motifs, reflecting the fertile soil of Bengal and its rich agrarian society. That’s why such motifs are used as decoration during Lakshmi Puja and different agricultural festivals.
Then comes the universal yearning of motherhood down the ages. Brata Katha usually centres around Ma Shashthi (Goddess who protects children) and different alpona motifs are given in her honour. So alpona is not actually drawn, rather it is dedicated to the gods and goddesses and become a part of religious rituals. Hence alponas are versatile – they are used everywhere, from marriage ceremonies to Nabanna (New Grain festival), to tribals’ Bandhna Parab to ward off evil spirits and welcome blessings. Alponas are largely used for decorating homes. These days even some villages as a whole are decorated with alponas.
Rules of Giving Alponas
Usually, alponas are drawn on the ground, on the floor of houses, on wooden platforms and in courtyards. At times they are drawn on walls. Rice is soaked in water, then made into a paste in which a cotton ball is dipped. Then women hold this dipped cotton ball with three fingers and with a lot of elan draw exquisite alpona motifs. The pristine white alpona motifs drawn during festivals and pujas bring a feeling of fulfillment and peace. At times, colours are also used and this has been done since ancient times. One gets such references in Banshidas’ Manasamangal, where Sanaka before placing the ritual pot (ghat) draws a colourful alpona with five different powders. Even today during many pujas, such alponas with five powders are given. In Manasamangal we also get reference of Mandaps being made in five colours. How does one get the five colours? Red colour comes from brick powder, yellow comes from haldi, green from powder of Bel leaves, white from rice powder and black from black cumin powder or from charcoal.
Usually, the thumb and two other fingers are used to give alponas. The patterns are at times geometric, at times they tell the story of daily life. Motifs include leaves, flowers, birds, ponds, jewellery or even things used daily like a comb. Nature, environment, blessings, wishes, yearnings and love — all get amalgamated in a wonderful potpourri of alpona art.
Two other special motifs used in alponas are feet of Ma Lakshmi and the Mandala Circle, designs that have been used since time immemorial, from the beginning of creation in different parts of the world. If Ma Annapurna keeps the food stock going, if Ma Lakshmi blesses us with happiness, health and wealth, then not just at a personal level, but even at a social level, a country achieves maximum and is blessed. This belief gives rise to the alpona motif of ‘Feet of Ma Lakshmi.’ In Tantric cult, a special geometric motif is drawn called Srijantra. One gets to see its reflection in the alpona drawn before putting the ritual pot or ghot. During Lakshmi Puja, alponas depicting owl, the vahana of Ma Lakshmi is seen. Owl is considered as a sign of fertility along with motifs of betel leaves and betel nut. Alponas are thus a reflection of economic state, tradition and culture.
In Bengal, alpona is also used in another form of art known as Kulo Art. Kulo is a handwoven material used widely in rural Bengal to husk grains. Since it is used to husk grains that provide us food, so Kulo has a place of importance in the rural society. Hence to beautify it, often alponas are drawn on them. This Kulo Art is also seen during marriage ceremonies and usually they are decorated with motifs of plants, creepers, flowers and grains. Among the tribal community, Santhals, Hajong, Oraon, Tipra, Kora, Mahali communities bring out their tradition and beliefs through alponas. Santhals have a special ritual called Bhadu that is celebrated to appease the Rain God for better crops. They have another ritual to ward off evil forces. In both rituals they use alponas. In West Bengal, Santhal communities (who have not embraced Christianity) celebrate Sankranti and holy Thursdays, where they extensively use the Alpona art. They celebrate a festival called Bandhna Parab to ward off the evil eye from their crops. During this festival they draw the alpona of Goddess Lakshmi’s feet at the entrance of their farm and courtyard. On walls of Santhal huts, one often comes across alpona motifs of various farm instruments like plough. Even hand prints of alpona are pasted on the bodies of domestic animals like cows and buffaloes for their safety. Though alpona motifs are usually round or square in shapes, Santhals also give rectangular shaped alponas.
Popular Alpona motifs
Full bloomed lotus, conch & lotus, mangal lotus, eight petalled lotus, feet in the shape of lotus etc. are common motifs. They are used as symbols. In the centre one draws a lotus and surrounding it, a circle or square is drawn, within which one draws creepers, plants, ribbon like patterns. During marriage ceremonies, the wooden plank on which the bride and bridegroom sits is also decorated with alponas. Though in modern marriages, we hardly see such practice, but many families still maintain this tradition. Motifs seen on such planks are usually that of butterflies or any other good sign reflecting peace, love and prosperity. To decorate homes in Bengal across both Hindu and Muslim communities, one draws alpona motifs of fish, peacocks etc. on the walls of homes.
One cannot think of ending an article on alpona without bringing in Rabindranath Tagore and his immense contribution in popularising Alpona Art in Santiniketan. Even today, that tradition is carried forward by well known artist Sudhir Ranjan. In Santiniketan both men and women participate in drawing alponas. As per Vedic rules, Kshitimohan Sen brought a new tradition to alpona. His wife Kiranmala Devi was a great alpona artist. In 1909, Nandalal Bose and Asit Halder drew pictures of the Ajanta Art under the request of Sister Nivedita. Nandalal Bose had been immensely influenced by the rock paintings of Ajanta caves. In 1919 when he was the dean of Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavan, he further gave a boost to this Alpona Art. Even today Santiniketan holds on to that tradition.
These days we do not always get to use natural colours in alponas. Colours that one gets in the market are usually synthetic, but the patterns of the Alpona are still traditional, holding on to the ancient art form, even though the materials with which they are drawn do not remain the same as before. In recent times, thanks to the immense influence of the West, in urban India we often tend to lose or overlook our traditional art forms. Despite that, Bengal’s Alpona Art is still going strong with all its vibrancy and secular thoughts, along with ritualistic feelings and respect. Even artists of big cities are mesmerized by their beauty and at times they have tried changes in motifs to bring in a modern touch. Whatever be the case, the vibrant and eternal Alpona Art of Bengal will always be alive.
Mrs Anita Bose is a Ramayana scholar and a researcher in Madhubani art. She lives in Thailand. Mrs Bose has made comparative studies of Ramayana in different cultures and civilizations. Ramayana: Footprints in South-East Asian Culture and Heritage, Saptapadi, Mater: Letter from mother to son [with others] are some of her works.