Alpana is a floor art which originated from the women of rural Bengal and has been in practice for many centuries, although the exact origin period is unknown to historians. Other than floors and walls, Alpanas were also painted on low wooden stools called peedi, paddy storage areas and earthen pots which were used for auspicious occasions.
The Colours and Technique
Powdered rice, and, sometimes, white flour is mixed with water to form a paste, which forms the base colour for all Alpanas. The artist dips a piece of cloth or cotton into this paste and using only the ring finger draws the desired patterns or motifs and then sometimes uses the thumb to form thicker lines in the pattern and to smoothen out any lumps that may remain in the paste while drawing.
Traditionally all Alpanas are supposed to be only white in colour, but with the advent of time colours have been incorporated, especially green from green leaves and red from vermillion when done organically. In the present time, white poster colour or acrylic colours are also used to do the ornate designs for durability and permanence.
Alpana and related rituals
This form of art is related to folk rites practised by women, which is called ‘Brotos’ in Bengali, which is similar to the Hindi word, Vrat. The act of ‘Broto palan’ is done with the aim to achieve a wish or a desire, which may be spiritual, religious or personal in nature.
Some of the well known Brotos and their Alpana art are as follows:
Dosh-Putul Broto Alpana: In this form, the Alpana depicts ten dolls holding hands in a circular motif, which signifies the harmony with a family and household.
Purnipukur Broto Alpana: To keep the soil fertile and the lakes and ponds filled with water, unmarried girls perform this ritualistic Alpana, praying to the Goddess. This form is mainly done during the summer month of Baishak which is between April and May, before the advent of the monsoon. A common recurring motif in this form is conch shells.
Nabanno Broto Alpana: In Aghrayan, the month spanning between November and December, the Nabanno Broto Alpanas are painted, praying for good harvest and prosperity.
Shashti Broto Alpana: Done in the month of Joistho, between May and June, for the wellbeing of loved ones, especially the children of the household. A cat motif is drawn in this Alpana, which is the symbol of Goddess Shashti. It is also known as the Jamai Shashti Alpana, where the mother-in-law prepares a special meal for the son-in-law and invites him to her home and prays for his long and healthy life, in this case, the Alpana is drawn in the kitchen or where the food is served.
Lokkhi Broto Alpana: Goddess Lokkhi or Laxmi is the bringer of wealth and prosperity, this Alpana is drawn to invite the deity to the home, this is probably the most commonly practised Alpana in the recent times as far as ritualistic Alpana goes. It uses motifs such as the owl, lotuses, paddy bins, footprints of the deity and climbers.
Shejuti Broto Alpana: This form portrays the needs and desires of a comfortable family life. Ranging from household items, tools, animals, birds, various utensils, to plants and flowers. Sometimes they depict the profession of the family as well.
Prithibi Broto Alpana: Mainly done for the peace of the planet and for a life partner, this Alpana worships nature and makes use of motifs like lotus and conch shells.
Alpana in the modern era
The modern-day Alpana we see that adorns the puja mandaps and wedding ceremonies are markedly inspired by the Shantiniketani school of art which developed this style. They are more ornamental and abstract, symmetrical in their placements and far more secular in nature.
Alpanas are not just drawn for religious or spiritual purposes anymore; it is used for celebratory occasions like marriage or naming ceremonies, to welcome guests, for cultural events. It is also practised across the border, in Bangladesh, by not just Hindus but Muslims as well, giving it a secular nature. Colours have found their way into the traditionally white designs.
Words: Rhiti Chatterjee Bose
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