Floored by an art tradition

Sudakshina Ghosh gives finishing touches to her alpana at Sandy's. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam  

At Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory, Sudakshina Ghosh made a presentation on how pioneering Indian artist Nandalal Bose innovatively gave the decorative floor-art tradition of alpana a new identity. Sudakshina herself never felt the need to formally study art. “I grew up in a house surrounded by artists. I learned not just visual art but also performance. My mother and aunt were students of Nandalal Bose at Santiniketan and they staged Tagore’s dance dramas. I danced as Chandalika. I sang as Chitrangada. In Singapore, where I lived for 18 years, I conducted Tasher Desh, a dance drama by Tagore.” Choosing to major in chemistry, Sudakshina taught for 28 years before returning to her first love — art. When I ask her what is common to art and chemistry, she replies, “With both there is experimentation.”

Dipping her brush into the dregs of coffee, Sudakshina discovered wonderful tonalities for her paintings. At the entrance to Sandy’s, Sudakshina’s alpana, in rice flour paste, coffee and turmeric, welcomes. “The turmeric paste mixed with wheat has turned red and the coffee mix looks black!” she laughs.

Sudahskina’s talk begins with Nandalal Bose. Born in 1882 in Bihar, Bose came to Kolkata at the age of 15. After a somewhat tumultuous turn with academics, he made his entry into art and showed rapid progress after finding his calling. Under the tutelage of his British principal Havell and meritorious teacher Abindranath Tagore, Bose absorbed eastern and western thought processes. In 1922, he was invited to be Principal of Kala Bhavan at Shantiniketan to “respond to the needs of society”. Bose, alongside, evolved alpana, an ancient form of decoration towards aesthetic awareness.

Alpana comes from the Sanskrit word alimpan, which means to plaster or coat. The traditional alpana is a floor art similar to kolam in southern India and rangoli in the north. The decoration is done with a wet paste and is not as susceptible to ants carrying rice flour away. Designs and materials are specific to alpana, yet, it is an art of transience. Notably, alpana adorns the threshold on festivals or ceremonial occasions, not everyday. To beautify, invites grace: its auspicious intent is similar to other forms of Indian floor art– to usher in prosperity, health and happiness. The rudimentary forms practised by village folk of Bengal show flat drawings with figurative motifs. In one alpana for Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth, within the boundary of a homestead, various objects make up the scene, including two owls carrying the goddess. A creeper meanders from the outside with footprints of the Goddess concealed in its fronds — a prayer for Lakshmi to enter their home and fill the empty pot.

The beauty of alpana, emphasises Sudakshina, is in the free flow of lines, meant to be spontaneous play, encouraging the creativity of women. This is a tradition of ornamentation passed from mothers to daughters for thousands of years, as art historian and cultural anthropologist Stephen P. Huyler noted. The motifs are often drawn from nature — a conch, a creeper, the sun and moon. In examples Sudakshina showed, the traditional structure is not formally cohesive – elements sometimes disparate, almost free-floating. Comparing the Shantiniketan form, she says, “It is not symmetric and not repetitive. Bose insisted in having pause — through light and shade, modulation and movement. The absence of pause makes design monotonous. His designs, therefore, are more like paintings.” Bose was very attracted to the murals in the Ajanta caves.

He also derived patterns from nature, transforming three-dimensional forms in nature to two-dimensional artworks as with the Shiuli — autumn flower. When we look at the alpana evolved by Nandalal Bose, it shows his synthesis to homogenous forms strengthening visual impact by design. Known for his iconic depiction of Gandhi with his staff in a black and white linocut in 1930, Bose had zeroed in on the symbolic power of art to make an impression. Bose made the transition responding to the need of the hour, moving art from a place of appreciation to a language that could enter other arenas and speak persuasively.

Concluding her presentation, Sudakshina confesses, “I am better at doing Alpana than talking about it.” When she makes a paste out of rice flour and squeezes it into a fine cloth to make patterns on the floor, others join with enthusiasm. Outside Sandy’s, the true power of alpana plays out when men and women gather to draw uninhibitedly, a community joined through patterns. Art as a unifying experience was Bose’s singular contribution.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 6:28:52 PM |

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