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Bengal’s folk art Alpona was endorsed by Abanindranath Tagore

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Remember the opening scene of French cult filmmaker Jean Renoir’s The River, filmed in 1950 at Barrackpore? That intricate drawing on the ground created by women huddled on a courtyard creating an alpona. Their hands move swiftly and elegantly and each deft finger-stroke etched out petals of a lotus to perfection. Credit for introducing the exquisite art of alpona on screen goes to another iconic filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, whose trained eyes and aesthetics often zeroed in on this rural art form that represented Bengal and millions of its unsung women artists.

For Bengalis, alpona is an integral part of any auspicious occasion. The word alpona is derived from Sanskrit alimpana, which means ‘to plaster’ or ‘to coat with’ and refers to intricate motifs, sacred art or painting done with hands using a paste of rice and flour.  Traditionally, alpona are associated with brata(rituals) performed by women during festivals and this unique art form has been handed down generations,in decorating their daily lives with motifs drawn from objects around them. 

The motifs the women draw, include farming tools, kitchen objects, sun, stars, divine feet, swastika, a rice stem, ladder, lotus flowers, tree, fish, birds, abstract human and animal figures, mango, betel leaf, palanquin, grain baskets, conch shell and shankha-lata(a snake). Circular alpona is used as a holy pedestal during festivals like Annapurna Puja, Durga Puja, KojagoriLakshmi Puja, Basanti Puja, Saraswati puja (Vasant Panchami) and Diwali.

However, this unique art form is slipping into oblivion and is being replaced by brush strokes of acrylic paint or worse still, stencils or plastic stickers. Incidentally, alpona is very different from rangoli. Rangoli which means a row of colors or layer of colors, is made using various materials like rice flour; a flower petal, colored sand etc. For alpona, rice is the essential and the only ingredient used. The grains of rice are soaked for hours and then ground into a fine liquid paste. 

It is a pity that we are turning a blind eye to this rich art form of Bengal, despite great artists like Abanindranath Tagore who was fascinated by the artistic sensibilities of the illiterate, rural women who could create magic with their bare fingers. To expose the talent of these unsung artists and bring to the Western audience, this rich indigenous art form, he even wrote a book, Alpona: Ritual Decoration of Bengal in 1921 that was published from Paris. The alpona designs published in the rare book is a visual treat to the eyes. 

Recently, the cultural heritage wing of INTACH joined hands with Daricha Foundation, that works for the revival of tribal and folk-art forms, to revive the dying art of alpona. Artist Rabi Biswas, who is an authority on alponaart, is involved in this project and travels extensively  to familiarize and educate people on this art form through lecture-demonstrations (lec-dem). He has created a book illustrated with pictograms related to local traditions. With dedicated artist/ art-historians like Biswas, we can hope to see a revival of alponaart form in not just the villages but also the metros and create job opportunities for talented girls.