Alpona: Images and Symbols of Bengali Women

Posted by Chantal Jumel

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)[1]; 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. L'alpona du Bengale

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[2], 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).

[1] Abindranath Tagore, l’Alpona ou les décorations rituelles au Bengale, Editions Bossard, Paris, 1921.
[2] Pather Panjali», Satyajit Ray’s first film in 1955.

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