The Indian Art Of Floor Decoration

By- Kamala Vasudevan

Writing with lines and colours- that is Rangoli. An age old traditional and unprofessional and ritualistic art practiced across the length and breadth of India. This is mostly done by women, especially the rural women. The art is passed from mother to daughter down through generations. It is the first ritual done in the early morning by the woman of the house. These floor decorations have different names in different regions of India. In western India, for instance, they are called "Rangoli", in the south, "Kolam", in the east, " Alpana".

It happens before sunrise. A girl, freshly bathed, the flowers of worship in her hair, goes about the ritual of decorating her threshold with traditional rice flour motifs. They are bold graphic motifs that come naturally to her- the lotus flowers and conch shells, geometric patterns and peacocks and goddesses. They well up in her imagination and pour quietly from her fingers onto a clean, cow dung polished mud floor. You stop her and question her - about the meanings, origins, significances. But, she is innocent of any answers to these questions, she is simply following the traditions set by her ancestors. All she knows is that her mother taught her this art, and in turn she will pass on this tradition to her daughter. Meanwhile, of course, there will be a good monsoon and the harvest will be kind, the children of the household will grow up to be strong and dutiful, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, will  smile upon the family and bless the land.

These floor decorations originated as a form of thanksgiving, an adornment of the earth that nurtures us. The reasons for doing the Rangoli and the motifs and patterns used in it are all symbolic in the context of the philosophic, ritualistic, or religious beliefs of the area. The Rangoli is an integral part of the ethos of the Subcontinent.

The birth of Rangoli goes back into time, into ancient India. Known in Sanskrit as "Rangavalli", or creepers drawn with colours, it is mentioned in all ritual and artistic texts. It is specified as the fourth art called  "Dhulichitra", drawn on a prepared ground. The "Kamasutra" of Vatsyayana, lists the sixty four arts to be mastered by women. Amongst them, the fourth is "Alekhyam", or writing with lines and colours. The sixth is "Rangoli", or drawing to please the god, the ninth is "Manikarma", or arranging coloured stones on the floor in a design.

 Rangoli is also mentioned in the great epic, the Mahabharata. Bhagavata Purana tells us the stories of how the gopis forgot the anguish of their separation from Krishna by engrossing themselves in creating elaborate floor drawings  on the floor.   Even Vidura, hearing of Krishna's return, prepared a Rangoli as a welcome sign.

 The Vishnu-Dharmottara Purana's "Chitra sutra" lays down instructions on how to prepare the ground before painting the Bhumichitra, the Yantra, or thought diagram, of the Navagraha, the nine planets.  Different kinds of Rangolis were drawn everyday to invoke the beneficiary influences of the ruling planet of the day. On specific festivals, the essence of the auspicious day was represented by a specific design. On days of fasting, when vows were observed, symbolic motifs were drawn to ward away the evil spirits and bad omens. As art, the drawings were decorative and embellished the courtyards and floors of homes. Some were simple and others were intricate. The thoughts and values enshrined in the Vedas dictated the pattern chosen. Symbols of the planets represented the days of the week. Some were identified with man in relation to the cosmos, a oneness with nature. Others were identified with the northward and southward journeys of the sun, special fasts and vows .

Rangolis were usually done at domestic altars or along with the "Tulsi" or basil plant considered a vegetal manifestation of Vishnu sacred to his consort, Lakshmi.  Within a grid of five onto five dots, the feet of Lakshmi are first drawn, overlapped with the feet of Vishnu. A protective border is then drawn around it. This symbol becomes one that invokes harmony. Even though, it appears as an abstract pattern, it is symbolic of the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi, and the preserver, Vishnu.  These floor decorations are considered as auspicious symbols. There are special motifs for different occasions, for weddings, festivals, departures and arrivals and everyday adornment of the threshold. At the Divali festival, for instance, one is supposed to draw the feet of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, by the door. It signifies a visit from her to one's home.

The traditional medium for these drawings is rice flour- used so as to offer sustenance to ants , birds, and the squirrels. Apart from the traditional rice flour, one frequently comes upon other mediums used for these decorations- whole grains or cardamoms, pebbles, pulses, bright coloured pigments, and a delicate flour paste along with terracotta powder for borders.

One discovers a fascinating array of motifs traditionally used in drawing the Rangoli patterns, lotus, geometric designs, fish, mangoes, deities, rivers, ceremonial lamps, Tulsi Vrindavan, temple chariot and some modern motifs for instance  which are not traditional like airplanes, merry-go-rounds, country boats with fishermen, train, even automobiles!

The traditional way of drawing these Rangoli patterns is by letting the fine rice flour slip from between the fingers of the right hand onto a freshly swept surface. It sounds easy, but in actual practice it is an art difficult to master as very fine lines of the rice powder is required to draw the pattern so that it looks like drawn with a fine pen! Women of older generation had plenty of practice by drawing everyday, and proceeding from simple patterns to complicating ones. Maybe because of this, that stencils of varying designs are in use now by the women. It is quick and easy.

These floor decorations are customarily drawn just by the threshold of the home , in or around the courtyard. Sometimes though, one finds the entire floor covered with the , an intricacy of white motifs spread out like a carpet.

Sometimes one finds these auspicious floor symbols extended onto other surfaces as well, on to the bridal platform, the sides of ceremonial pitchers, about the cradle on which an infant lies waiting to be named!

There is a  great deal of  happy rivalry in a household  associated with the drawing of ritual Rangolis, the various daughters-in-law of the family vying with one another for drawing the most complicated Rangoli patterns , thereby gaining the mother-in-law's appreciation and becoming her favourite and the envy of the neighbors.

In  South India, a  decorative as well as ritual floor drawings done either daily or on special occasions or for propitiating a god or goddess is called Kolam.There are fascinating rituals associated with these floor drawings in South India, for instance, an expectant mother must have a Kolam pattern drawn on her back and again on her grinding stone, to assure that her child will be born as strong as a stone.  Usually rice powder and coloured powder is used for the drawing. This again is a female's domain as she is the one to propitiate the goddess Lakshmi to enter the house and bless the inmates. A woman is considered a  form of Shakthi and she gives full reign to her imagination in drawing the designs. Bamboo reeds are also used for drawing kolams. To produce a continuous design or kolam, hollow reeds are punctured with holes to form a design. The reed is filled with rice flour and rolled continuously on the floor to form a design. These tubes are a great attraction during temple festivals.

In another example from Gujarat, the symbols used suggest the male and female energies, the Shiva and Sakti of all living things. It elaborates how "Moksha" or salvation, from the cycle of births can be achieved by using the four gates of knowledge, the four Vedas. The Nandi, the sacred bull, symbolizes the householder's everyday "dharma" and the bull's four feet represent "Satya" or truth,"suca" or purity,"daya" or compassion and "Dana" or charity.

Tradition dictates that one has to walk over the Rangolis, smudging them with the feet, so that a new one is drawn everyday, a renewal of devotion so to say. In fact legend has it that a mendicant will not accept alms from a home if the Rangoli on its threshold remains unblemished, for obviously means there are no children in the household and hence it is without divine  blessings.

The Rangoli grid was an intuitive way of teaching how to calculate. The simplest of grids was 3*3 dots and it extended to 48*48, 64*64, 80*80 and to 108*108 dots. Many complex Rangoli designs are worked always keeping within the speculative thoughts of the Vedas and the rules and rituals laid down. In the celebration of the Rangoli vratas, and vows, no priests were required which allowed women to add and develop the symbols and motifs from their own imagination. Their sources were the legends of  village gods and goddesses adapted by the community. The simple act of transformation played an important role in translating the motifs and symbols which had great elasticity. The essence of Indian art, even at a non-professional level, is an act of transformation. A small rock jutting out of the ground becomes a Shivalinga and a huge cave rock becomes the Kailas temple at Ellora. The cave temple complexes at Ajanta, Ellora, Karla and Kanheri are all transformations from the imaginations of the human mind. A number of small beautiful craft objects like cosmetic boxes in the shape of birds, and animals, for e.g. are the result of fanciful imagination of the artist and gets transferred into the Rangoli designs.

The "bindu", the dot is the heart of the Rangoli. The "bindu" is described as the point where the identity of the individual soul and the universal soul is realized, the point where all living beings unite. In Rangoli, the "bindu" becomes the central motif representing the protective energies of the divinity encircled in a square or rectangle. The border around a Rangoli pattern, which can be a circle or a square or a pentagon or even a hexagon, serve as the protective fortress against evil spirits. This is the "Lakshman rekha", a protective circle drawn by Lakshmana, with the point of an arrow, around the hut, when he has to leave Sita alone. The circular movement of heavenly bodies is represented in the Rangoli by a circle and so is the sun and creation. The square was the symbol for the earth and the "yajnakunda". This sacred fire container is the pivotal form in all religious ceremonies, rites, and rituals. The four sides of the square are the four gates or ashramas required for the four priests conducting the yajna sacrifice. All the geometric forms in a Rangoli pattern has an assigned symbol.

Tantric style floor  drawing depicts Yantra,   the   Yantras are visual and geometric equivalents of mantras. A yantra is generally a geometric  flat or three dimensional figure made up of squares, circles, and triangles in a particular set of combinations to represent a deity or a cosmic force. .  Geometrically, it consists of a square frame composed of three lines representing the three natural qualities of sattva(cohesion), rajas movement), and tamas(disintegration).The square has four gates, one in each direction of the compass. They act as the doors of communication between the inner sacred area and the outside world. Enclosed in the square are two circles with stylized lotus petals. The outer circle has sixteen while the inner has eight petals. Within the inner lotus are nine intersecting triangles. The apexes of four triangles point upwards. The remaining five triangles point downwards and symbolizes the female principle or shakti.In the center of all the intersecting triangles is the point, Bindu, the dot, the undifferentiated Absolute Reality. This very clearly demonstrates the ritual role of line drawings to emphasize religious theories, be it Tantric or Hindu cult. The Tantric science contributed to the beauty of the Rangoli with its symbolic geometric forms, woven in mathematics.

The Kolam, as a ritual act, is drawn outside the house every morning except during the time of mourning in the house. Apart from signifying all is well in the house, it is also a charm against evil spirits. In the drawing, there should be no loose ends. All the lines must meet in order to catch the evil spirit inside the kolam and not permit it to enter the house. This feat is performed by the snake, whose sinuous coils provide the basis for all designs of Kolams and Rangolis. 

In some places in Tamil Nadu as well as Kerala,during the New Year celebrations or The Onam festival, the women decorate the floor drawings with small balls of the sacred cowdung in which Yellow pumpkin flowers are stuck. This forms the central motif. Sometimes lighted oil lamps are also placed inside the drawings along with the flower decoration. An accompanying song is also sung in praise of the goddess.

Hand drawn Rangolis in accordance with Puranic or Vedic laws are not practiced anymore with accuracy and the ritual aspect is replaced by a purely decorative one. With this the whole vocabulary of a philosophy, values, ethics and beliefs manifested in colourful forms are vanishing. Communication has taken a totally new route and with it the line and colour barrier has come down too. 

Author

Kamala Vasudevan Kamala Vasudevan is an eclectic mix of antique collector, art History writer, travel writer and a raconteur of Hindu mythology. Her interests include books, on art mostly, antique jewelry, about which she has written in many magazines, and Classical Music in which she was well trained. She had written several small books for an E- Book venture, which was translated into several European languages and few other dotcoms as well on the traditions of various cultures in India. She had been in love with antiques from very early age and believes that a country's true history and identity lie in our traditional arts and crafts and the people who create them, specially those executed as votive offerings because the craftsmen who made them were single minded in their devotion, untainted by commercial considerations, and aesthetics were their final aim

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