Bengali alpona, The River by Jean Renoir (1)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

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[1]

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[2], 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.

[1] Instead of alpona, it is the word rangoli which used for the design.
[2] 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

Bengali alpona… meeting with Kolkata (2)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

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.

Bengali alpona…At Sumitra’s home (4)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

It’s the 14th of January, the day rural Bengal celebrates the abundant harvest and the goddess Lakshmi. We finally arrive in the artist’s village and it’s Rabi (Bio) himself who welcomes our small group. After our initial greetings and a few words of welcome for me in English, he takes us to his grandmother’s house. The path leading there is covered with footprints painted in white to show the goddess Lakshmi the way to their home so that she may bless its occupants.

Rabi’s grandmother Sumitra is in the middle of the courtyard. Wrapped in a white shawl, she draws on the beaten earth with a confident hand, guiding the milky substance between her fingers.

Rice is the essential ingredient for the drawing of alpona.The grains[1] of rice are soaked for hours before being finely ground into a liquid paste.

On this morning, the countryside wakes up to a different dimension under her able fingers, the silky whiteness tracing the outlines of daily objects, or of those which are desired. It’s an austere white, somewhat similar to the mystical white that prefigures the transmutation of the profane to the sacred in many initiation rites. Rabi the chitrakar[2] describes the objects appearing around the large circular alpona. We see a bucket, a pot, ladles, a basket, and a few essential farming tools like a hoe, a wooden rake, sickles and a ladder. We also make out a winnowing basket used to separate straw, husk and dirt from the grain; a tool used to de-husk rice called dheki[3]; and a bonti, which is a curved blade attached to a wooden block used to cut fish as well as vegetables. Offerings of a pair of earrings and bracelets for the goddess complete the circle.

On the perimeter, two cats seem to be coveting a pair of fish attached to a line, or it may be the nearby heron that intends to snatch them. In another corner of the courtyard, images of a crocodile (kumir) and a tortoise (kachin) catch my eye. These are the vehicles of the two river gods, Ganga and its tributary, Yamuna. Ganga is standing on a makara[4], while Yamuna perches on a tortoise. A garland representing an ear of rice bending under the weight of its grains encircles the entire courtyard and adjacent paths. Meanwhile, imaginary flowers have created an earthly paradise: a lotus flower traced with alternating straight and undulating lines, flowers with swirling centres, and others resembling stars.

[1] Atap chaul or sun-dried paddy.
[2] The Patua community of West Bengal narrating and singing from village to village, epic and mythological stories painted on paper scrolls.
[3] An agricultural tool used for threshing, to separate rice grains from their outer husks. A heavy wooden foot-operated mortar and pestle.
[4] The goddess vehicle is either an Indian gavial (Gavialis gangeticus) or a mythical creature called Makara.

Bengali alpona..Makar Sankranti at Sumitra’s home (4)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

Moved by this graceful and invocatory action, I think back to the opening shots of Jean Renoir’s The River, and understand why the filmmaker had chosen to start the film with images of the creation of an alpona as a homage to the memory of his father, the painter Auguste Renoir. Sumitra has finished and disappears into the house. I admire the walls and entrance doors. Like the pages of a school notebook filled with enigmatic symbols, the ochre coloured walls decorated with drawings and symbols are a snapshot of the beliefs and religious customs of rural Bengal. These pictorial compositions open to the sky remind me of the illustrations I’ve seen in the only book published in French on this art, the translation of Abanindranath Tagore’s « L’Alpona ou les décorations rituelles au Bengale »  (Alpona: Ritual Decoration of Bengal)[1], published in Paris in 1921.

On the walls before me I find some of the same drawings I had seen in the book and which had made such a big impression on me. Today it’s Rabi who describes the meaning of each of the motifs. There are farming tools, kitchen objects, lotus flowers, fish, birds, abstract human figures, divine feet, bori[2] drying on a rack, mangoes, betel leaves, a palanquin, a jar of vermilion, arm ornaments, and round grain baskets called gola, made of strips of bamboo. Friezes embellish the supporting columns of the veranda, while a creeper made of stylised conque shells covers the upper frame. Climbing the few steps, I notice the two owls painted on each side of the double entrance doors, facing each other. In Bengal, this nocturnal bird is the vehicle of the goddess Lakshmi.

Peinture murale avec divers symboles

Sumitra reappears dressed in a red and orange sari and walks towards the large alpona, carrying a tray of flowers which she places on a carpet of unhusked rice. Sitting cross-legged, she begins the ceremony of worship for the goddess, making the customary offerings and ending with many salutatory gestures.

Offrandes et hommages

Afterwards, over a cup of tea, Rabi Biswas tells me about his passion for ritual decorations. As a child, under the admiring eye of his grandmother, he would paint on paper bags made by a neighbour for shopkeepers. When he started collecting different alpona designs from the village ladies, his grandmother was delighted and decided to teach him the art. As a result of his passion, he has created a book illustrated with pictograms related to local traditions.

[1] Abanindranath Thakur known as Tagore was a painter, illustrator and a writer. Born in 1871 in the family of the philosopher Rabindranath Tagore which he was the nephew, he was the creator of the “Indian Society of Oriental Art” to promote traditional Indian arts.
[2] It is a dried lentil dumpling popular in Bengali cuisine. It is made from a paste of urad dal sun-dried for several days.

Bengali alpona…Makar Sankranti in the villages

Posted by Chantal Jumel

The rest of the morning is spent exploring a few neighbouring villages with Rabi in search of rare alpona. Along the way, we have plenty of occasions to marvel at the creativity applied to everyday objects. We see tree trunks covered with cakes of cow dung in the form of a handprint, as well as fence posts also covered with this precious bovine excrement, drying vertically. The fingers have been used to shape the dung around the posts with a variety of different marks. Further along, to a soundtrack of the click-clack of weaving machines, we see saris stretched out on colourful wooden rods, waiting to be folded in a particular way.

We stop in a village where alpona adorn the courtyards of houses and farms. I see many circular shapes, but I’m intrigued by the squares, which are often topped with triangles. A closer look reveals that these represent houses, stables or kitchens. These are sometimes grouped together along with pictograms of humans or animals inside, and next to these, offerings of chillies, onions, pea pods, different types of seeds meant for the kitchen, and a handful of grass for the stable.

We also see drawings of ladders leaning on concentric circles – depicting a granary or gola, baskets with handles meant for picking flowers, and a chariot that suddenly comes alive when a farmer transporting wood appears before us. There are other fascinating examples: a bunch of new shoots signifying renewal and abundance, flower pots, and a painting of a pair of scissors in front of the tailor’s house, because during Makara Sankranti, artisans also pay their respects to their tools.

Other offerings include orange or yellow marigolds and unhusked rice. In this region of Bengal, farmers fish from ponds and grow marigolds. Their wives use a needle and thread to string garlands of the colourful blossoms, which will be sold in the temples. The marigold takes the place of the lotus in the central motif of certain alponas, delineating the crenated contours of the petals of the carnation flower.

In the next village we visit, other ephemeral ritual decorations captivate me. Like these coloured globes filled with tentacles – which look much like those of sea anemones – and hang off the ends of sticks planted into the ground. I learn that these are shaped out of a type of plant fibre called shola, or ‘Indian cork’. A crocodile and tortoise made out of clay seem to be emerging from the ground; but they are not painted like Sumitra’s. The two reptiles are adorned with carnations and strips of wood, signifying teeth and claws, and await the rituals and offerings dedicated to the goddesses of the two rivers, to whom they serve as vehicles.

It’s time to leave for Shantiniketan, the ‘abode of peace’, an open-air school north of Kolkata established at the beginning of the 20th century by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. He had believed in the convergence of traditional Indian values with the progressive ideas of the West. It was at this time that ‘Kala Bhavan’, the visual art section, opened its doors and included the art of alpona in its curriculum and events on campus. Today students still continue the tradition of alpona during national holidays, like Republic Day, Independence Day, Holi, Tagore’s death anniversary, and other school events. As for me, the quest has just begun…

Alpona books and references

Posted by Chantal Jumel

KOLKATA: It was at Kala Bhavan that the idea of including alpana as part of the fine arts syllabus germinated, through a series of workshops that Rabi Biswas was called in to conduct. Biswas, in fact, has been crusading to revive folk alpana, with foundations like Daricha and Intach playing a key role. Please follow the link.
Alpana decision taken at Kala Bhavan

AKINO Fuku (1908–2001) was born in Shizuoka Prefecture.  At twenty-one, she moved to Kyoto, where she studied under NISHIYAMA Suishō, anihonga (Japanese-style painting) artist, and submitted works to Kan-ten(government-sponsored exhibitions).  In 1948, she left the Kan-ten and founded Sōzō-bijutsu (the present Sōga-kai) .She also taught at the Kyoto City College of Arts (the present Kyoto City University of Arts) from 1949 to 1974. These four paintings were done during her year-long residency at Visva-Bharati University as a visiting professor at age fifty-four. Read Fuku Akino art museum

Prabhat Niyogi, “Alpona”, coloured illustration in “Prabasi”
Agrahayan, 1337 Bangabda (bengali calendar), November-December, 1930.
Mukul Dey Archives, Santiniketan .











Chittaprasad Bhattacharya, Alpona,
India’s most recognized political artist of the mid-20th century, born in 1915. He satirized and sharply criticized the feudal and colonial systems.
Alpona, Chittaprasad Bhattacharya, gravure sur bois










Tapan Mohan Chatterji, 1948, English

Prativa Bala Bardhan, 1962, Bengali and English

Eva Maria Gupta, 1983, German

Brata und Alpana in Bengalen, Eva Maria Gupta, Franz Steiner verlag, 1983.

Brata und Alpana in Bengalen, Eva Maria Gupta, Franz Steiner verlag, 1983.











Abanindranath Tagore, new edition 2014, Bengali

Banglar Brata, Abanindranath Tagore, Introduction et annotations by Dibyajyoti Majumodar, éditions Gangchil, Kolkata, Novembre 2014

Banglar Brata, Abanindranath Tagore, Introduction et annotations by Dibyajyoti Majumodar, éditions Gangchil, Kolkata, Novembre 2014


Jain rice designs to liberate the soul (1)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

In the heart of Mylapore, on Kutcheri road stands a white building almost austere in contrast to Kapaliswara’s colorful gopuram. Shri Vasupujya Jain temple has no deities and no mythical creatures sitting on the entrances, but finely chiseled facades that subtly lighten the marble construction.

Having crossed the opalescent threshold, the milky hall reflects the morning light and welcomes men and women devotees who every day, carry out the most intriguing ritual. Sitting on the ground facing a low table, they grab from within a bag, a handful of rice grains which they display on the surface before swiftly pushing, pulling and arranging the kernels into designs with the fingertips or the side of the hand. According to Jain scriptures, every man or woman has to draw auspicious symbols with unbroken rice before starting the daily prayers.

As ephemeral as a kolam, the rice design helps one to concentrate on the virtues of the Thirtankaras or enlightened souls who became role-models for those seeking spiritual guidance. There are eight auspicious symbols but the most noticeable pictogram is the svastika representing the four states the soul can live in: human, animal, in heaven or in hell. Srivatsa: a mark in the middle of the chest. Nandyavarta: a bigger svastika with nine corners. Vardhamanaka: an earthen dish covered by another one upside down, appearing like a box. This symbol is suggestive of increase of wealth and fame. Bhadrasana: a throne. Kalash: a holy jug made of copper, silver or steel. It is used for religious and social ceremonies. Minyugala: A pair of fishes symbol of Cupid’s banners coming to worship the Jina after the defeat of the God of Love. Darpan: a mirror reflecting one’s true self .