An Introduction To Alpona Art
No matter where you’re from in India, chances are you’ve participated in a ritual that involves decorating the floor with intricate patterns. These patterns may be created before festivals or as part of traditional rituals. Although the medium and styles may differ, floor art was popularised under different names in different regions. The traditional floor art of Alpona was popular in Bengal.
Do you know how the traditional practices of alpona are different from the Aipan of Uttarakhand or the Kolam of Tamil Nadu? Let’s interact with this alluring art form and learn about its journey from folk tradition to fine art.
The Origin Of The Alpona
The people of farming communities in Bengal would offer Brotos during different times of the year. ‘Broto’ refers to vows or prayers offered for the fulfilment of certain wishes. The women of these communities would observe Broto by creating elaborate floor paintings, or alponas. Alpona is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘alimpana’, which means ‘to plaster’ or ‘coat with’. It is also called alpana and was primarily practised by women.
Alpona was part of the Bengali woman’s rituals. She would pair the ritual with prayers. If there was a drought, her prayers would include verses asking for and praying for rain. Current happenings influenced the designs, so a design requesting a good harvest would contain motifs such as ripe wheat and granaries. Several rituals preceded the actual painting process. Alponas also aided in the act of bhut yajna and performed as the good deed of the day. Ants, insects, and other wild animals can eat rice flour, as it is edible. Thus, the Alpona’s temporary nature served religious purposes as well.
History And The Materials Used To Create Alponas
In folk tradition, village women would paint alponas on door frames and the walls of mud huts. They served as a symbol to ward off evil as well as a prayer for blessings. The women would also paint alpona designs on pottery, utensils, and terracotta objects. Later on, the practice was restricted to floor art. There were three types of alponas: geometric designs that were used to decorate walls, floors, and objects; circular patterns used as pedestals for idols; and elaborate designs used to illustrate panels. The designs on the panels depicted the brotos dedicated to the multitude of gods in the Hindu pantheon. Broto alpona disappeared in the 20th century.
Traditionally, clay or mud mixed with cow dung is used as the base for the alpona. Women prepared a liquid slurry of atop chal (refined rice) and created designs by using their fingers to manipulate the mixture. Though the main colour used is white, women can add turmeric or red clay to the slurry to create yellow and vermillion colours. The materials used to create Alpona are wet, unlike other floor art forms in India that use dry powders as a medium. Today, women use poster colours, zinc oxide, or ready-made stickers to create alpona art.
The Folk Styles Of Alpona Art
Folk-style alponas use circles, semi-circles, wavy lines, kalkas (kairi motif), and panels to create geometric and stylized patterns. Women also use nature based motifs like raat rani (night-blooming jasmine), kadam phool (bur flower), birds, conch, creepers, sun and moon, leaves, fishes, etc. Paddy leaves, the feet of Goddess Lakshmi, and symbols of wealth and prosperity are also featured in traditional Alpona designs.
Women belonging to different communities use different styles of alpona. The women of the Santhal tribal community draw different alpona designs compared to those of the Bengali community. There is also a difference in the styles of the Hindu and Muslim communities. The women belonging to each community interpret alpona in a different context, which results in a diversity of art styles. The women of the Santhal communities drew simple geometric patterns and symbolic nature-inspired motifs. Hindu women draw alponas with symbolic designs and religious motifs linked to austerity, religion, and festivals.
Alpona At Shantiniketan- From Folk Tradition To Fine Art
Rabindranath Tagore included Alpona as one of the few folk art forms that were introduced to Shantiniketan. His nephew Abanindranath conducted a scientific study of the art form and mentioned in ‘Banglar Broto’ that some motifs were hieroglyphic and symbolic in nature. He also wrote ‘L’Alpona ou les décorations rituelles au Bengale’ a book on Alpona designs that was published in French.
Kshitimohan Sen introduced the application of ancient Vedic principles to this art form. Rabindaranath Tagore later invited Sukumari Devi to teach Alpona art at Kala Bhavan. While she was well-versed in traditional techniques, Sukumari had developed a unique style of her own.
Nandalal Bose became the Principal of Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, in 1919. He observed Sukumari Devi creating alponas and developed an interest in the art form. Bose observed that the folk alponas were rudimentary forms and contained flat drawings. Folk women used figurative nature-inspired motifs and drew them as faithful renditions of real-life due to which their designs were not cohesive and did not have a unifying style or structure.
Nandalal Bose created a new style of alpona painting at Shantiniketan which did not contain the symmetry or repetitive elements of folk alpona art. Bose wanted it to flow freely and show depth, light, and shadow. He drew alpona like fine art with elaborate designs that were more like paintings. The academic study of this art form started with Rabindranath Tagore and culminated in Nandalal Bose’s introduction of alpona as ‘high art’.
- Swati Ghosh chronicles the journey of alpona from folk to fine art in her book ‘Design Movement in Tagore’s Santiniketan: Alpana — An Experiment in Aestheticism’.
The Alpona’s Influence In Modern Indian Art
There is a reason every woman was an alpana-maker in the old days, though some were much better than others — the simple folk motifs could be mastered by all with some practice. The Santiniketan style, developed by artists, needs ninja brush skills. In this age of specialisation, the alpana too has slipped from the oeuvre of the common woman to that of the artist.– Paromita Sen
Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore used traditional alpona motifs in their art. They are some of the artists from the era of Independence . Filmmaker Satyajit Ray included motifs from the art form in illustrations, book covers, and advertisements. He also scouted the locations for Jean Renoir’s film ‘The River’. The opening scene of the film as well as the movie poster depicted women drawing alpona.
This art form also inspired modern artist Jamini Roy, who was also responsible for the photographic documentation of the development of Alpona at Shantiniketan. The artist and photographer Devi Prasad incorporated its decorative motifs in his paintings and pottery. Nandalal Bose’s daughter, Gauri Devi, introduced the folk art to the textile medium. After that, its motifs often featured in the Batik work of the women artists of Shantiniketan.
The Importance Of Alpona Today
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Daricha Foundation train artists in alpona art by conducting lectures and workshops. In 2016, it was included in the foundation course for undergraduates at Kala Bhavan, the fine arts department of Visva Bharati University. The students are taught the basics of the art form as well as some common motifs and designs. The artist Rabi Biswas learned about alpona from his grandmother, Sumitra Mondal, and now travels across the country to teach workshops and spread awareness about this ancient art form.
In modern-day Bengal, alpanas are still an important part of rituals and religious festivals such as Durga Puja. Several alpona art competitions are held during this time as well. The local women draw them in public and private spaces. Volunteers create huge and elaborate alponas on the streets of Lankamura as part of the special Makar Sankranti festivities. As mass-produced stickers gain popularity, it has resulted in a decrease in the tradition of hand-drawn alpona. This is also detrimental to the preservation of the techniques of the art form. However, the folk art form continues to be popular due to its religious and cultural significance. Artists like Rabi Biswas now draw Alpona on paper, which has helped it become commercially viable.
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By Melissa D’Mello