Alpana: The traditional floor Art of Bengal

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Sougata Das, Art Historian and Associate Curator, KMOMA (Guest Editor)

Alpana refers to colourful motifs, sacred art or painting done on a horizontal surface that became an indispensible part of Bengali rituals and ceremony.

The word Alpana is derived from the Sanskrit word Alimpan, which means ‘giving the layer’. In 1951, a report published on the tribal groups of West Bengal, stated that the word has originated from Aal which means the technique of the barrage for water distribution for the cultivated lands. Whatever the origin, it had been assimilated in general religious, cultural and decorative aspects of rural folk life.

The first visual traces of floor paintings are found in one of the seals of Mohenjo-Daro. While exploring the pan-Indian local vocabulary of traditional floor painting, one would find the different names of it like – Alpana in Bengal and Assam, pakhamba in Manipur, jinnuti in Orissa, sathia in Gujarat, aripana in Bihar, rangoli in Maharashtra, mandana in Rajasthan, chowkpurana or sona rakhna and also rangoli in Uttar Pradesh, likhnu in Himachal Pradesh, apna in Almora and Nainital region, kolam in Tamil Nadu, and muggulu in Andhra Pradesh and so on.

The art of Alpana is generally executed on the courtyard or on the floor of a house. It is also found on low wooden seats. It may also be depicted on the outer surface of earthen pots used in socio-religious rites. Generally Alpana is executed with rice paste mixed with water and soaked in a cloth which the artist holds in her hand and then draws the different designs of the Alpana with the middle finger which is fed with the mixture from the cloth.

As far as the magico-religious rites are concerned, the motifs of Alpana vary with a wider symbolic connotation.  The art of Alpana is not only meant for mere decoration with arbitrary ornamental motifs, but contextually designed with relevant motifs keeping a relation with the ritual and ceremony. Motifs like the feet of Laxmi (goddess of wealth welcomed in the home), kalasha (symbol of abundance, fertility and one of the astamangala or harbinger of good fortune and success in life), lamp (dispeller of ignorance), Shankha (the conch, giver of opulence and wishes) are some common ones. Plant and animal motifs also play an important role in this art. These motifs depicted naturally or symbolically, represent forces or qualities embodied in some aspect of creation, evolution, and dissolution; fertility and procreation; or the cosmic life force and regeneration.  For instance, fish motif, owl motif, peacock motif, butterfly motif, lotus motif etc. , represent different aspects of life. The creeper patterns in  Alpanasignify fertility, growth and progress. In Alpanas, shankha-lata or the conch-shell pattern and champa-lata are drawn. The art also depicts meandering designs of man-made objects such as shovel or khunti-lata, bangles or banti-lata, pearls or mukta-lata and many other objects. Repetitive chain patterns similar to the creeper patterns are also drawn in Alpana. These patterns signify continuity, or simply create a pleasing aesthetic effect. In some Alpanas of Bengal women draw ornaments, vermillion container, comb, sarees, mirror, house etc. which they desire to possess. Alpana motifs are adopted in Kantha embroideries as well. Thus, this art form practiced primarily by women, integrates cosmic, day to day as well as traditional symbols in an organic whole of symbolic, ritual and aesthetic expression.

Though the alpana related to the magical significance of vratas but secular alpanas has developed with the initiative of Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan. Alpana became a part of the curriculum of Kalbhavana of Shantiniketan. Exploration and experiments in design of alpana has made it an eclectic design form and turned into an indispensible part of decorative art practice. The basic characteristics of these Santiniketani alpanas are organic, improvised, and sinuous. These alpanas are not used only for spiritual causes, but are part of our daily life.

Today, exploration and experiments in design of Alpana have made it an eclectic design form and turned it into an indispensible part of decorative art practice. As modernization is seeping into our culture, a wonderful juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is reflected in mainstream art practice too. The art of Alpana has turned up as a dominating element and visual language widely used by modern Indian artists like Jamini Roy, Meera Mukherhee, Joyti Bhatt and Arpana Kaur, to name a few.


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