Art is intrinsically woven into the culture. Also, one can continue and say that art is a reflection of society, norms, and traditions, as much as it is an expression of creativity and imagination. One of the most ubiquitous art forms that one often quite literally treads upon in India is floor paintings. It is an art that is deeply rooted in heritage, folklore, belief, and culture. Floor paintings in India are a unique manifestation of wholeness and understanding of a particular aspect of ‘Indianness.’
There are many ways to explain the cultural finesse of Indian ways. Especially since it is particularly vague and encompasses a whole lot of emotions, variations, traditions, and more. However, one of the best ways to look at it is to understand that an outward display of culture, either through art or traditions, is but a reasoning strongly backed by values, faith, and spirituality. A simple example is that even hosting a guest in Indian culture, is compared to the guest being God Himself. Similarly, floor paintings are a stunning demonstration of household art. Yet, its existence and expression are tightly bound by religious, cultural, and spiritual beliefs.
The Origins of Floor Paintings in India?
Floor paintings have existed in India for centuries. The earliest findings of floor paintings point to seals from the Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Valley Civilization. These seals had decorations that look like the mandala designs and because of their significance and importance, floor paintings were also adopted by the Aryan culture. Most scholars believe that the folks and mythical tales of the pre-Vedic age were the main material on which the floor paintings were based. These paintings made it easier for laymen to understand the complex philosophical concepts of divinity, spirituality, good and evil.
Also, as per popular belief by several women, Sita painted her home in the forest when Lord Rama had left to hunt. Similarly, Lakshman drawing the line around Sita to protect her is another example from mythology that is associated with floor paintings.
The Mountain and Plain Differentiation
The floor paintings, though representative of a region or occasion, can also find broad classifications in the north and south of India. Geometric designs or what is also known as ‘akriti pradhan’ are prevalent in mountain Indian states. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and the southern peninsular are states and regions where geometric designs are common.
Regions with fertile lands and plains are more inclined towards floral designs. West Bengal and Bihar, for example, create ‘vallari pradhan’ designs. However, in some southern states, there is a combination of both geometric and floral patterns.
Geometric designs signify the influence of bhakti and tantric ideologies, whereas floral designs are connected to the social and religious influences. Some of the common patterns and designs also bear meaning. For instance, the circle represents the entire universe, while the square within the circle signifies culture. Triangles pointing upwards mean mountains and signify stability. Downward pointing triangles represent unstable earthly elements.
The Similarities in Floor Paintings of India
Though each region or state has its own floor paintings, there are also a few commonalities that bind them together. The floor art is associated with keeping away evil and protecting the home, city, or structure on which it is painted. Most of the floor paintings are done by the women of the home or community. These are not learned in art institutions or taught as subjects. But the art of floor paintings is passed from one generation to another through practice.
Also, the floor paintings traditionally are made using natural materials that are powdered or formed into a paste. However, in modern times, this might vary.
The Different Floor Paintings of India
When one says floor paintings, we don’t necessarily mean a single type or style of design. In fact, floor paintings in India are known by different names in different parts of the country. It is called Ranjoli in Maharashtra, Chowk or Sona Rakhna in UP, Alpana in Assam and West Bengal, Kalam Ezhuthu in Kerala, Kolam in Tamil Nadu, Aripana in Bihar, Jinnuti in Odisha, Pakhamba in Manipur, Likhnu in Himachal, Mandana in Rajasthan, Muggulu in Andhra Pradesh, Apna in Nainital and Almora region and Sathia in Gujarat.
Each region or state has its own unique style and design of floor arts. Also, it is interesting to note that the names of the floor paintings also signify their distinctiveness. For example, mandana comes from the word Mandan which means to decorate. Thus, the floor paintings in Rajasthan are predominantly used for beautification and decoration. On the other hand, the word alpana has more than one meaning. It is believed to come from the word, ailpona, which means the art of making embankments. This implies the art form is a means of keeping the city, village, or dwelling safe. It could also have been derived from the word alimpan, meaning to coat or plaster.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific floor paintings from different states.
1. Alpana Floor Paintings
Alpana is drawn during the festival of Makar Sankranti and usually covers a large area. Some of the common designs used while drawing an alpana are farming tools, flowers, utensils, and other motifs that are related to agriculture and farming. It also usually has a central circle or circles that signify the granaries in a village. Originally, the alpana was made from a paste of uncooked rice from unprocessed paddy. Thus, traditionally the alpana is white in color. Today, modern alpanas also have cylinders and stoves drawn as designs. The alpana or alpona is also drawn during other festivals and occasions, such as Durga Puja or at weddings.
2. Kolam Floor Paintings
Kolam unlike, many other floor arts which are associated with a festival or occasion, are drawn on the doorsteps of homes each day. It is made using rice flour or slightly diluted rice paste. Drawn using straight lines that are unbroken or looped, a kolam is believed to keep the house safe and away from the evil eye. A dot at the center of each enclosed design signifies the Mother Goddess who is also a symbol for fertility. Similarly, a red dot in the design signifies blood which is the source of life. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced world, kolam designs are fast disappearing. But the older generation and many others continue to practice this art form.
3. Mandana Paintings
Mandana is the floor art for Diwali. The women from the Meena community of Rajasthan decorate their home walls and floors with non-geometric designs, which include drawing peacocks, tigers, monkeys, Lakshmi’s feet, etc. The mandana is drawn on a special ground or surface that is prepared using cow dung mixed with the local clay of the region called rati and red ochre. The motifs are drawn using chalk or lime and a cotton tuff is often used as a brush to enhance the designs. Each design is made by marking dots and then connecting them to form a pattern. Also, usually, a central motif is the main design that is surrounded by smaller motifs.
4. Kalam Ezhuthu Floor Paintings
This floor art is practiced in temples, usually by the Kurup and Pulava communities. These colorful drawings of gods and goddesses are painted with natural colors. Some of the common deities whose floor paintings adore temples include Bhadrakali, Aiyyappan, and Kamadeva. Interestingly, the eyes of the deity are painted last, as it is believed that life infuses itself within it only once the eyes are created.
5. Rangoli Floor Paintings
Rangolis are common in Maharashtra and is perhaps an overarching term that is used for floor paintings across the country. Made usually during the festivals of Diwali, Sankranti, Pongal, etc. they represent positivity, happiness, and welcome Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of good luck and wealth. A rangoli is also made with flowers and over the years it is created for various social occasions, as well as, being used as a means of welcome in hotels, restaurants, etc.
Floor paintings are a perfect example of the culture of the land interweaving into art. An art form that is often relegated to everyday, instead of the exotic and exclusive, floor paintings are nonetheless an expression of social, religious, and cultural beliefs. Is it in threat of disappearing? Perhaps, considering that is passed from one generation to another, there is a high risk of losing its true meaning and essence. Yet, we hope that it continues to strive and survive.