Motifs of Alpana
Design Movement in Tagore’s Santiniketan by Swati Ghosh chronicles the evolution of hand-drawn designs across nations, cultures, and time. It narrates the journey of Bengal’s traditional alpanas—from a folk art to a symbol of cultural identity, from a medium of aesthetic expression to a medium of learning. Set in a rich cultural landscape and a colourful art and craft panorama, this book also documents Rabindranath Tagore’s constructive efforts in successfully bringing about a cultural regeneration through education in art and craft in India after independence. The photographs and the hand-drawn sketches by the author attest to an aesthetic heritage, which is as old as human civilisation itself.
Below is a excerpt from the book which sheds light on the motifs of alpana.
When primitive art, in course of evolution, reached the historic times, it took shape in scripts on the one hand, and on the other hand, it revealed itself in alpanas at folk art level. For example, we can speak of shankhalipi which is a script form that evolved as one form, from spirals and conch motifs (shankha is conch) to another: the shape of shankhalata in alpana. In his essay on the history of alpanas in women’s rituals, Pallav Sengupta has opined that the force, which drove primitive humans to draw, is the same force that has inspired the development of art forms like alpana.1 The motifs emerged from the wish for the welfare of the community at large. The inspiration behind these art forms was also magic and witchcraft, and the tool of expression of the primitive human was art, and alpana has its origin in this art. The underlying stimulus behind developing these art forms was primarily life and the ways of living. On observing closely, it can be noticed that, while some patterns have remained constant and unchanged, with change in socio-economic patterns there have been changes in other motifs of these art forms. From the study of these alpanas, the history of social evolution emerges before us in a broader sense and the role of alpanas in this aspect is not at all trivial.
In the earliest stages, human life depended primarily on hunting. Back then, the movements of birds, animals and snakes were considered to be symbolic. It can be undoubtedly said that the broken serpentine lines with imprints that can be found in the alpana designs carry forward the traces of hunting based life of the primitive human. This can be reasserted convincingly because similar lines are found in ancient cave drawings. The ordinary human being had accepted these footprints of animals in their art as a tool of witchcraft to escape disaster. Gradually life and living evolved from hunting to agriculture and animal rearing. Motifs in art forms also changed. The serpentine motifs changed into creepers or ‘lata’. They came to be embellished with varieties of motifs and acquired different names accordingly. Lines of dots that were a regular feature of the hunting human’s art remained as a constant in the new art of the agriculturist human but more as an ornamentation. Besides these, there was also the belief that particular symbols will help in the fulfillment of particular desires. This belief passed on from one period to another and continued to flow through generations. There are numerous examples that are found in the rural alpana patterns of much later stages. For example, serpentine lines and dots could be found beside a bunch of rice grains or stacks (known as ‘morai’ in Bengali) of the same. These were adornments in the designs, but fertility in agriculture was desirable and snakes had a close symbolic connection with fertility. Owls were drawn as a symbol of protection from these very snakes. Often footprints of birds were drawn beside the ‘morai’, with the hope of having an abundance of produce. The beautiful and artistic impressions of birds’ footprints symbolically implied that the stacks of grains were overflowing and birds had come to nibble at them. The footprints representing birds were remnants of the hunting human’s art. A pond full of fish would be drawn with a similar desire and hope for abundance. The belief was this that drawing a tree full of fruits, a surging river and flying birds would all result in the same.
When the mode of living was animal keeping, then the footprint motif was considered to be sacred and rewarding. The footprint designs of both animals and humans were believed to take them to their desired objective. Even after the advent of agriculture as the primary mode of human life, the symbolic auspiciousness of the footprints remained unchanged. The footprints leading to home were always considered as a good omen heralding something good to follow. Here we are reminded of the footprints of Goddess Lakshmi, a regular feature in almost all alpanas of the Bengali occasions drawn by Bengali women.
Drawing female human figures as symbols in primitive art form was prevalent across many communities, and in many countries. The archaeological name attributed to them is Venus Figurines. The mother figure has featured in art in many forms. In the alpanas tradition, one of its manifestations is ‘child in the lap’ or ‘child at the waist’ (‘kole po’ and ‘kankhe po’, where ‘po’ is the child). The symbol of a fertile woman is very significant. Desire for a number of children was very familiar among the masses. A very simple and elegant representation of this desire in the Bengali tradition of alpana by ordinary village women is fascinating. It is drawn with simple bold lines that seem to come from the hands of a mature artist. It is as if the artist imagines a fine body within the shape of a mother. Fish, banana tree, betel leaf, ‘kori’ (tiny curled sea shells which served as commercial transaction units), etc. have all survived as symbolic heirs of the fertility tradition in the art of alpana. Sun is the universal symbol of masculinity and it is represented by the swastika sign. The ‘kalka’ or paisley symbol often used in alpana is the ornamental representation of a ‘kori’. The ‘vasudhara’ sign represents rain.
‘Alpana’ can be found in many communities outside India. Some communities of America have the custom of following vratas wishing rainfall. They draw patterns similar to alpanas on flat earthen saucers; they draw symbolic representations of the sun, mountains, agricultural fields and rain on them. In South America, motifs depicting the goddess of water, frogs, rats and owls are commonly found in these designs.
Price: INR 1495
Publisher: Niyogi Books
*Feature image: Details from book cover; Image courtesy: Niyogi Books.
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Swati Ghosh, a teacher, researcher and writer, is the author of numerous articles and an expert in translation and transcription. She completed her Master’s degree in English literature from Visva Bharati and also worked as Research Assistant at the Rabindra Bhavana Photo Archives. She has at least four published works of essays and translations in Bengali to her credit.