A much overlooked artistic endeavour which has made its way into several households in India is the art of rangoli. The beauty of this form lies in its simplicity of creation, the popularity of its practice, and its scope of incorporating intricate and basic designs alike. The ground is the canvas for this art – be it the artificial floor of the house or concrete roads. The patterns are mainly created out of artificial dry colours, but in its original form rangoli is made from coloured rice, sand, flour, or simply flower petals. At present it is mainly done to decorate the area for auspicious occasions such as Diwali, Onam, Lakshmi puja or other celebrations, but its relation to religious festivities has a much deeper connotation. In its historical sense, rangoli was believed to be an omen of good fortune and it was created as a symbolic representation of divine blessings.
Among the several legends regarding the origin of the rangoli art form, the most authentic one is the account of its mention in Chitralakshana, the oldest Indian treatise on painting and other kinds of art. It is believed that once, the death of the son of a high priest had raised a kingdom wide despair and mourning, leading to ardent prayers to Lord Brahma urging to bring the boy back to life. Moved by such devotion, the Lord had asked the king to create a portrait of the boy on the earth, which He thereafter brought to life. It is a popular legend that this was the first rangoli ever made, setting the tradition of designing patterns to pray for the fulfillment of aspirations.
The other prominent legend says that God in an artistic frenzy had extracted the juice of a mango tree to paint the figure of a divine maiden which rivaled the beauty of other celestial beings. Since then, rangoli became a form of art for women to depict the beauty of natural creations and divine power. One of the beliefs accompanying the art form also suggests that the non-durable materials are used as a base coating to signify the transitivity of life and existence, over which the bright colours are used as a symbol of divine compassion and blessings.
As art is dependent upon its source of inspiration, so the designs vary from region to region according to traditions, folklore, and practices unique to the area. The designs made may be simple geometric shapes or dignified patterns, but primarily floral motifs and impressions of the deity are drawn. The more complicated designs involve multiple artists for the purpose, but primarily women and children of the household. Nature enjoys a predominant representation in rangoli patterns as complex forms such as swans and peacocks are often added to the basic outline of the rangoli.
The base material to coat the outline is traditionally powdered rice or dry flour, to which vermillion or turmeric is also added to give it a red or yellow tint. Interestingly, the base may also be moist if flower petals are used or brick powder. Sand and chalk are frequently used for this stage of the painting. Although in modern times stencils are increasingly used to ease the process, it was initially a highly painstaking method requiring a centre point and the cardinal directions to be mapped out around the area of the pattern before the work could be done. The initial simple design is then modified into further intricate and delicate shapes.
Once the brief outline is done, the filling of colour is the next stage which may be simple or complex depending upon the kind of raw material chosen for the task. The most common technique is the choice of dry colours such as coarse grained powder or gulaal, marble and saw dust, and even natural colours made of unprocessed seeds, grains, spices, and torn leaves. Aside from dry pigments, wet ingredients such as dyes, acrylic colours, and vibrant marble powder may also be used. What is important is to take note that the lines are filled completely without leaving any unfilled cracks, as it is believed that broken lines in rangolis are a bad omen allowing entry to evil spirits.
Among the kinds of rangoli popularly made in different parts of India, hexagonal grids are common to South India whereas squares are the predominant shapes drawn in the north. The Tamil Kolam rangoli is a special kind of the art which is known for its unique designs, floating candles, and symmetry. The ornate Arabesque quality gives way to dignified and simplistic forms as one travels from the north to the south. In some families the tradition of rangoli making is so venerated that secrets of the art are guarded and designs passed down through generations such that they become a unique ensign of the family.