The Tradition of Rangoli 

Indian folk art has a tradition going back to 5000 years. It includes wall art as well as floor art. Kolam, Rangoli etc come under the latter category of art. Each part of India has its own 'brand' of floor art and I will try to give some basic information about these here.

The term RANGOLI is derived from 'Rang' (colour) + 'avalli' (coloured creepers) or 'Rang' + 'aavalli' (row of colours). Rangoli is Maharashtrain in origin although today it is practised everywhere. Rangoli is specially characteristic of Western India (Mahrashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan) - colour fills in contrast to the floor art in Eastern India - Bengal, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, etc where they use Alpana, a line drawing in rice powder/paste and Kolam, which is predominantly used in South India - Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The designs are symmetrical and geometric in shape drawn with lines that may be straight or wavy and rounded on the edges.

The motifs in Rangoli are usually taken from Nature - peacocks, swans, mango, flowers, creepers, etc. The coulours traditionally were derived from natural dyes - from barks of trees, leaves, indigo, etc. However, today, synthetic dyes are used in a range of bright colours. The materials used for Rangoli take on either a flat appearance, when coloured powder such as rice, brick, chilly, turmeric, etc is used or a 3-D effect when dhanyas, cereals, pulses, dhals, either in their natural colouring or tinted with natural dyes are used. Some artists use the 3-D effect for borders alone while others create beautiful designs using grains and beads entirely.

Originally Rangoli was done in small patterns - 2 ' by 2' but now entire floor areas of rooms and Hotel foyers are covered in intricate detailed designs. Grid lines may be drawn in light chalk first and then the designs copied carefully on them. I have even seen a Tanjore Painting in an exhibition! Again, traditionally, such floor decorations were done only on auspiscious occasions or festivals. But today, any occasion is good enough - opening ceremonies, hotel promotions, etc. Further, artists hold exhibitions on Rangoli and other floor art where various modifications of the traditional art can be seen. Thus, in one variation, artists use even water as their medium! For this, a tank or tub of water is taken and kept in a still area where the water will not be disturbed by a breeze or movement of air. I believe a fine layer of charcoal powder (which is light and floats on the surface) is sprinked on the surface and the artist creates his/her designs using the rangoli powders on this water panel. The effect is magnificent, to say the least.

In the deep South and South West of India is Kerala - where flowers are used to create floor art. This is particularly done on Onam Day ( the most important festival in Kerala) or during the whole Onam Week, when designs are changed every day. The designs would start in a small way but as the days go by, more and more artists join and the designs get bigger and more beautiful. Not all flowers are suitable as some may fade very quickly. For example, the bougainville which comes in such beautiful shades of red, pink and white cannot be used because they wilt soon after they are removed from the plant. The most popular flowers are of course indegenous to the area - marigolds, chrysanthemums, daisies, roses, jasmine, besides leaves. When flowers are large, such as dahlias, they are separated into their petals and these are used to fill the designs. Whole flowers may be used as borders to outline the design. Again, it is up to the artist to use his or her imagination. One could never go wrong with flowers as they are a product of nature and therefore beautiful on their own. Is there any such thing as an imperfect flower or a garrish, gaudy colour in Nature? The combination of colours is also very much in the hands of the artist but again, one cannot go wrong as in nature all combinations of colours are effective - e.g shocking pink and dark green in clothes may be unthinkable, but think of a rose garden with deep pink roses among dark green foliage! A special flower, the THUMBA flower, a small light coloured flower in the shape of a heel and sole of a foot, nicknamed, the VISHNU foot; is a must and used in all flower kolams during ONAM. These floor designs being offerings to God, are never cleared away with a broom when they need to be removed. The design may be done directly on to washed, wet floors or on a layer of wet mud.

Kolam is the pride of Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka (although there may be some differences from area to area, they are essentially the same ). Basically they are line drawings, in geometric and symmetrical shapes, drawn with dry rice powder or with rice paste. Rice powder is used basically because it is white in colour and readily available. Also, it serves to feed ants - to show one must take care of other forms of life too, to create a natural balance. The dry, coarsely ground rice powder is placed between the thumb and forefinger and rubbed together and moved along a predetermined design by the drawer. This is an art taught to young girls right at a young age and is difficult to master. Each early morning and evening, the women of the house can be seen washing the areas in front of their houses and drawing kolams, free hand! On festive occasions, large designs, depicting the occasion are drawn in front of the entrance to the house, and smaller ones inside the house. These are then outlined in red with 'kavi' a red brick paste, to make it look grander and more beautiful. One particular Kolam is the Sun in his Chariot drawn by 8-16 white horses! This is drawn on Pongal or Shankaranthi Day - 14-15th January, to depict the apparent move of the sun from the Tropic of Capricorn northwards to the Tropic of Cancer. Not all kolam enthusiasts or practitioners are born artists. So to help them draw geometric designs, guides such as dots are placed stategically in the required shape of the design and then the drawer connects these dots or goes around them in curves, lines and circles to craete the design. Today, in the market, there are several gadgets and design books to help the novice achieve near perfect Kolams - there are rollers - hollow tin rollers with handles and designs drilled on the surface, to be filled with rice powder and dragged effortlessly along the edge of the walls or across steps in diagonal lines to produce intricately designed kolams. Then there are the kolam stickers which may be stuck on the floor in front of the alter or the front doorstep as well as templates in metal with various designs.

Like all ancient traditions in Hinduism, Kolams are multi-functional or have several purposes -for instance, take food ingredients such as mustard seeds, fenugreek, thyme, basil, garlic, yoghurt etc. They are multi-functional - as not only do they satisfy the palate, fill the stomach and appease hunger, but they also have medicinal properties. In the same way, Kolam is not only aesthetic - pleasing to the eye, decorative, makes attractive and conducive for harmonious living but it is also spiritual. There are kolams which are called YANTRAS which come under this category. Yantra means an instrument in Sanskrit and these yantras are energy designs. Such kolams are drawn around the fire pit during ceremonies. One of the most popular yantras are those drawn to depict and worship the 9 planets (NAVA GRAHA KOLAMS); these are drawn on the different days of the week and each of them has a special sloka to go with it - Hrim, Klim, etc. There are also slokas from Soundraya Lahari by Adi Shankara to go with these yantras. Tuesdays and Saturdays have two yantras, thusing making it 9 in total. Each of these yantras when drawn correctly and with the sloka recited accurately creates such good energy that it is beneficial to the drawer - e.g on Saturdays, it is drawn to remove illnesses, diseases, obstacles, etc.

Besides, there are several other very powerful yantras associated with Goddesses - Shakthi, for example. Again, these have very accurately drawn geometric designs - traingles, circles, multipetalled lotus, etc - in beautiful colours. They are again very powerful and need to be recited and drawn only by knowledgeable persons as it could misfire. In rural areas, where snake and scorpion bites are common, yantras are used by such experts to remove the poison, even today.

And in conclusion, here is a note to all new Kolam artists: In folk art, one need not be afraid of making mistakes as there is no such thing as a mistake! In fine arts, as in music, one wrong note and it is 'abaswara,' but in folk art, the mistakes become embellishments and make the art work individual and unique. Each design is a personal experience of the drawer. The final effect will be very typical of the designer/drawer of the design - a firm hand, a shaky one, a trembling one - can make all the difference to folk art. 

Making Dipawali Rangolis        Rangoli Patterns