Meanwhile, I meet my local contact who suggests a visit to the neighboring villages the next day. The morning looks beautiful, we are in October and it is not scorching hot. The road transforms quickly into country lanes and the driver weaves in and out of the numerous potholes.
On the road, we often stop to admire the creative inspiration of the peasant women and their luminous graphics which redesign the courtyards and the walls of adobe built houses. Dipavali revives the local bestiary and the diagrams inspired by the philosophical precepts of tantric art. My visual enthusiasm is a little tempered by my guide’s assertions who underlines the undeniable impoverishment of the repertoire and creativity. According to him, the countryside urbanization and the construction of cement houses are the main causes. The villagers move away from unfired clay bricks which require frequent repairs after monsoons. If cement is a symbol of modernity and social achievement, it contributes widely to the disappearance of wall paintings called thapa. The young generation, more educated than their elders, feels reluctant to prepare the muddy mixture and therefore neglects this pictorial expression viewed as naive.
We arrive in a village inhabited mainly by Mina who belong to one of the most ancient tribes of Rajasthan. They live in the fertile plains of the East and are divided into two major clans: the high status Hindu landowners and the others who possess no land. In the 19th century, in spite of their prestigious ancestors, they were declared “criminal tribes” by the British and that until 1952 when the offensive list was repealed.
Perched on a hillock, it is a densely built up area and houses adapt themselves to uneven grounds by spreading harmoniously their volumes on different levels. Alignments, projections and recesses allow glimpses of terraces overlooking other open spaces. This is how I notice freshly painted mandana. Strolling along the village streets draws people’s attention who question my companion about my coming.
Thanks to him, we are invited to enter patios and each time it is a source of wonder; hardly a spot in the courtyards which is not adorned. The mandana adapt perfectly to the open-air hearth or chulha, honor the granary with an opalescent lacework, underline the platform’s edges, and transfigure premises. It is here, behind closed doors that women cook, sort out cereal crops, sun-dry peppers and cow dung cakes. To celebrate goddess Lakshmi, the women painters coat the inside as well as the outer walls and terraces. For that purpose, they prepare a primer with dung, water and clay to which light or dark yellow ochre is added.
To paint, they use a section of a date palm leaf’s midrib (khajur) which works as a reservoir as it is fibrous. My guide tells me that at times it is the tip of a plait which acts as a brush.
After a few days of drying, the liming is now ready. The vertical and horizontal surfaces offer themselves to the graphic incantations of the women who perform often in groups. They guide the milky liquid in a multitude of broken, oblique and curved parallel lines letting the ground or walls ‘s ochre appear. The white hesitates a long time between transparency and opacity but the translucent paleness is quickly replaced by a radiant presence capturing the light to become matter. The ochre adds texture to the white in a variety of patterns inspired by village life.
During Dipavali one observes ear millet designs (bharadi), cow hooves, oil lamps, inkpots or pens to symbolize yearly accounts, a scale and weights to increase trade. Other designs mirror hospitability in the shape of sweets (laddu, jalebi), a hand fan (bijani) and the vermilion pot (sindhur). The women also reinvent in multiple ways, domestic or everyday objects. Among them: the chaupad, a cross checkerboard ancestor of the parcheesi game, the jar (kalasa) or the Rajasthan stepwells (baoli) dug into the depths of the earth and flanked by vertiginous stairs leading down to the water. The iconographic repertory includes four to eight petals floral motives (phulya). A six petal flower (shah phulya) suggests goddess Lakshmi’s lotus shaped throne.
Bindu, the dot or the root matrix of creation. The ultimate figure beyond which energy cannot be condensed.
Trikon, the triangle, symbolic of the three guna (sattva, rajas and tamas), the three dimensions of time (present, past, future), the female and male principles (prakriti and purusha), the trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the three goddesses or shakti (Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Kali).
Chaturkon, the quadrangle incarnates order, stability and represents the earth.
Panchkon or a pentagon for the five elements.
Shatkon or an hexagram symbolizing the unity of the male and female principles.
Svastika or the four cardinal directions.
Vrita, the cercle indicates time and space.