“I draw free hand by the grace of God… it comes that is all.. when sitting in front of the tulasi, I visualise the situation, He shows the way and I draw the picture”.
Ramamani lives in Bangalore but does not like to speak much about herself except that she retired after having worked as a government employee. Her main occupation is her offering through prayers or “Sri Krishnarpanamastu”. She draws daily in front of the Tulasi pot, stories of Krishna on a granite slab with powders. The watercolor rendering effect adds elegance to the sceneries.
Inspired by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, she hopes that every image will finally reach her Lord. Earlier, she used to draw the Shanka and Cakra until one day, after having visited a temple in Sonda (a village near Sirsi in Uttara Kannada), she felt the urge to paint various stories of Krishna.
It was my first time in Bengal. For years I had dreamt of learning more about the beautiful ephemeral designs described and illustrated in « L’Alpona ou les décorations rituelles au Bengale » (Alpona, ritual decoration of Bengal); a short but captivating book I had borrowed from the library of the Guimet Museum of Asian Art in Paris. I eventually bought a copy of this precious book and each time I reread it, wondered whether this graphic tradition of East India was still alive and well.
In this region, these ephemeral drawings are called alpona, alpana, or alimpan, and are associated with rituals called brata performed by women during festival times. These rituals occupy a central place in the lives of village women. Brata can be both a form of domestic piety and a celebration of the forces of nature, and are dedicated to celestial bodies and divinities, in particular Lakshmi or Lokkhi, the goddess of abundance, who is invoked in this case. Some brata are very popular, while others are more elaborate. They can be accompanied by song and dance and have several purposes: for the protection of children or a husband, for a good harvest and abundant rain, to restore the fertility of alluvial plains. The texts and fables which accompany the drawings declare the triumph of the sun and the defeat of winter, while others evoke the marriage of the sun and moon in springtime, or celebrate the birth of spring and its union with the earth.
In Pather Panjali by Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, a young girl called Durga performs the Punyipukur brata. Kneeling outside her home, she digs a hole in the ground and places a branch inside, before offering flowers and invoking the rain and a divine blessing for a good husband: “Holy pond, flower garland, who prays here at noon? I am the pure maiden, Leelavati, the sister of my brother…Mother Goddess, teach me. I know not how to pray. May I give my husband a son. May I die by the Ganges. Oh Haro of Parvati…May I always be pure”. The scenes which follow are of the water of a pond being rippled by the wind, and a prairie of lotuses swaying under a downpour. (4.19 Durga gets ready and dig a tiny pond, The prayer starts at 5.38 until 6.01).
My journey begins in Kolkata, where I meet Ruby Palchoudhuri, a genuine Francophile who was wearing many hats: that of gallery owner, president of the Alliance Française, and ambassador of Bengali contemporary art in India and abroad. Today she works exclusively for the promotion of the Bengali craft industry, and it is thanks to her help that I meet a young artist who will take me to the villages and act as my guide.
The plane begins its descent towards Kolkata, previously known as Calcutta during the British Raj. I dread coming face to face with this mythical city associated with images of misery and decay. I think of Fritz Lang and his triptych of images in The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. These two films, with their exotic and sensual imagery, combine scenes of every day life in Calcutta with a storybook narrative of deceitful priests, power-hungry princes, a trustworthy hero, and a naïve and voluptuous temple dancer. While some have been exposed to Bengali literature thanks to André Gide who translated poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali in 1917, others have discovered Bengal through the films of Satyajit Ray, who examined and analysed different facets of contemporary society as well as the superstitions common in rural areas. Many Westerners became familiar with the work of Amartya Sen and his concepts related to poverty and development when he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998.
But the Bengal I had been dreaming about since my adolescence is that of its villages and artistic creativity of its women, like in the opening scene of Jean Renoir’s The River, filmed in 1950 in Barrackpore, near Kolkata. Actually, it was Satyajit Ray, a great admirer of the French filmmaker, who had been part of the film crew as a location scout. During the opening images, the viewer watches the creation of a drawing on the ground, called alpona, while a narrator introduces the film with the following words: “In India to honour guests on special occasions women decorate the floors of their homes with rice flour and water, with this rangoli we welcome you to this motion picture”
In the style of a documentary, Renoir filmed the rituals of the festival of lights, a statue of the goddess Kali, the local market, and scenes along the Ganges and its boatmen. Since the time this film was made, Bengal has been transformed, but the bucolic atmosphere captured on film surely exists and is waiting for me in a village somewhere, because in India, the past and present are intertwined, and different worlds are juxtaposed and merge together. It’s as if you’re slipping from one century to the next, or from one world to another. I’m eager to see an alpona, like the one that first fascinated me while watching The River on television with my parents. I’ll never forget the first few scenes of women drawing the petals of a flower on the ground. Little did they know that they were also writing my destiny with the tips of their fingers.
 Instead of alpona, it is the word rangoli which used for the design.
 Thanks to social networks, I met two sisters, Malika Ganguly and Manjari Chakravarti, the daughters of one of the three women that can be seen at the beginning of the film and so I was able to identify them. There is Shibani Chakravarti born Ghosh at the center who worked for the Red Cross and the aunt, Karuna Shaha on the right. The latter was a renowned artist in Kolkata. She was part of an all women group called “the group” in the 60 and renamed “Pancha Kanya” by the press.
On the left Khuki, the younger sister of filmmaker and documentarian Harisadhan Dasgupta born in Kolkata in 1923.
The website of artist Manjari Chakravarti
At the airport exit, a car is waiting, sent for me by my host and guide for the coming days, who has also organised a trip to north Kolkata and a meeting with a young artist with a passion for alpona. This young man would take me to his grandmother’s house and to a few neighbouring villages for Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival known here as Poush Sankranti. This is one of the rare festivals that falls on a date in the solar calendar, and marks a period of abundance.
In the meantime, I explore the cultural life of this city which has always identified itself as the intellectual capital of India. I attend an exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, followed by a talk the next day by the journalist Mark Tully at the very British Tollygunge Club, where a literary festival is held every year. This is followed by a visit to the imposing ancestral mansion of Rabindranath Tagore; an exceptional thinker who was known the world over, not only for his writings but also for his extraordinary humanism. He would form a friendship with Romain Rolland, and in 1919 would sign, along with other eminent intellectuals, the “Declaration of the Independence of the Mind” (Original French title: Déclaration d’Indépendance de l’Esprit) in opposition to the brutality of Nazi Germany and the divergent opinions of the time.
On my last day, I decide to explore two mythical places. First I wander down College Street, known for its many booksellers, a little like those you find along the Seine in Paris. Here passers-by and students haggle over books before dashing into one of the city’s oldest cafes, th Indian Coffee House, a gathering place for the local intelligentsia. Here, students, left-leaning revolutionaries, lovers, and beret-wearing artists sip cups of chai and reinvent the world under a giant portrait of the poet Tagore. The atmosphere here reminds me of the bohemian cafes of the 70s, and is a world away from the trendy cafes and young women in stilettos on Park Street.
My next stop is Kumartuli, another mythical place in Kolkata. This is where sculptors create idols of the goddess Durga which are painted and decorated before being carried in procession to the river for immersion. In the preceding days, families admire the idols in the makeshift shrines built for the occasion. The idol is created in several stages, with each neighbourhood artist specialised in a particular aspect. After building a skeleton out of bamboo, it’s covered with a mixture of straw and clay which is sculpted into the desired shape. In another workshop, potters are working on the limbs, torso, and head, while the decorations for the crown and jewellery are created elsewhere. The idol is then painted and dressed with care. The final step, called chokhhu dann in Bengali, is the painting of the eyes, and most importantly, the pupil.