If you happen to visit any Hindu Bengali home on the day of Sharad Purnima (the autumn full moon falling immediately after Durga Puja/Navratri), you will find a rich assortment of ornamental drawings on the floor. It is drawn to welcome and appease the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, who is worshipped on this day. The floor art, known as ‘alpana’ (or alpona), is a ritualistic art of Bengal.
Traditionally, alpana is drawn by women of the household with a special paste made from the white kernel inside unprocessed sundried paddy which is mixed with water. Tiny pieces of clean cloth or white cotton wool is held between the fingers and dipped in the paste and the pattern is drawn freehand. Using their imagination, the artists draw a range of patterns, which may consist of a mix of hollow and solid geometric shapes, floral designs, paisleys, symbolic representation of animals and other objects, etc. The elaborate alpana is usually drawn in front of the idol.
During Lakshmi Puja, it is compulsory to draw a pair of little feet often along with a wavy pattern bearing curlicues. The pair of feet is symbolic of the goddess of wealth while the wavy pattern with curlicues represents a stalk of grain (paddy in this case). It is believed that the goddess visits every household at night and enters the rooms where the footsteps are drawn. Hence you will find the footstep pattern drawn all over the house, even the staircase is not spared.
Considered auspicious, it is usually drawn during religious and social occasions (except during funerary observations). It plays a key role during the annual Saraswati Puja (dedicated to the goddess of learning and the arts) and observation of seasonal vows (‘vrata’), traditional wedding ceremonies, etc.
Interestingly, in modern times, the alpana has been slowly taken out of its ritualistic context and given a more secular feel, especially as street art. You will find elaborate alpana being drawn during the seasonal festivals at Viswa Bharati campus, the university built by Rabindranath Tagore. A few years back, the social media flaunted images of a huge alpana created at the Yuva Bharati Stadium during the Under-17 FIFA World Cup held in Kolkata. During the Bengali New Year in Bangladesh, you will find elaborate alpana created to usher in the year.
Drawing auspicious motifs during religious and social ceremonies is common across India. Classified as folk art, they are known by various names – aripana, mandna, kolam, rangoli, etc. While traditionally alpana is white in colour, in modern times, it has been strongly influenced by the colourful rangoli. Hence use of modern paint and paint brushes have crept in. Like many other folk arts, alpana (and similar forms across India) is facing a strong competition from commercialisation. With paucity of time, many prefer to buy the painted transparent sheets (stickers) instead of undertaking the task of drawing it themselves.