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Alpana (Ritual Painting) is a kind of folk art and a spontaneous expression of the artistic sensibility of people. It retains the past experience of the community and, at the same time, is very much contemporary in feeling. It is mainly the womenfolk who have kept the art alive in this part of the subcontinent. They retain connections with age-old traditions and at the same time are bold eugh to experiment with new forms and new colours. They are conscious of the changing moods of the seasons and their creativity thus marks the changing cycle of the year.

Alpana drawing

Hindu women observe a number of Vratas in Bengal. It necessitates the making of clay images as well as alpana designs. They decorate their houses and paint their walls in patterns learnt from earlier generations, in which each one of them quite often creates a world of her own imagination. Generally, they do this with a small piece of cloth soaked in a solution of grinned rice. It is likely that alpana designs were originally drawn by spreading white rice powder or by drawing lines on a layer of this powder.

The word alpana might have originated from the Sanskrit alimpana, which means ‘to plaster’, or ‘to coat with’. According to some authorities, however Alpana is probably derived from alipana, ie the art of making ails or embankments. Alpana does t occur in any of the ancient books on art, although the word Rangavali is mentioned in some of them.

Rangavali means ‘creepers painted in colours’, and the description of this art clearly indicates that it was a kind of alpana. In Sanskrit works like Kadambari and Tilakamanjari, one finds vivid description of the beauty and technique of these designs. Detail description of alpana paintings is found in later works like Kajalrekha and others.

It is difficult to determine the origin of the art. Many authorities hold that some of the vratas and pujas with which alpanas are associated can be traced to pre-Aryan times. It may have come down to us from the Austric people who lived in the country long before the coming of the Aryans. According to these authorities the ritualistic and traditional folk arts of Bengal (including alpana) originally belonged to the early agricultural communities for the supply of ample crops and driving out evil spirits.

Ingredients used in such drawings mainly consist of rice-powder, rice-paste diluted in water, dry colour powders produced from dried leaves, charcoal, burnt earth etc. Alpana is generally done on the floor and t on the wall or ceiling as was the case with the cave-paintings of Ajanta. From time immemorial, womenfolk of Bengal have been using these designs for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Representations in alpana have become conventional to a certain extent. Thus we find a certain mechanical motony, a stereotyped symmetry in the design of alpana, yet the inherent vitality of the motifs of these designs is such that it invariably asserts itself through the conventional fetters. On the other hand, the separation and uniformity of the motifs in these designs give a subtle character and a utilitarian aspect to the alpana. Circular alpana is used as a holy pedestal in the time of worshipping a deity, especially in the case of Laksmipuja. Motifs used in alpana are: sun, rice stem, owl, ladder, plough, leg of goddess Laksmi, fish, betel leafs, lotus, shankhalata, container of sindur kauta etc.

In modern times alpana is very much influenced by the Santiniketani style of art. Santiniketani Alpana is abstract, ornamental, secular and compact in nature. At present even Muslims draw alpana on different occasions such as marriage and other socio-cultural and religious ceremonies. On 21 February the shaheed minar in Dhaka and roads leading to it are decorated with alpana paintings. They have, in fact, become an inseparable element in the observance of ekushey february in Bangladesh. It is true that in modern Bangladesh alpana has attained a purely secular character. [M Rafiqul Alam]

Bibliography Ajit Mookerjee, Folk Art of Bengal, Calcutta, 1939; Gurusaday Dutta, The Living Tradition of Folk Arts in Bengal, Indian Art and Letters, vol. x, No. 1.