INDIAN ART AND PAINTING

INDIAN ART

When Westerners think of Indian art generally what comes to mind are stone temple sculptures, Mughal miniatures, multi-armed temples bronzes, elaborate jewelry, exquisite embroidery and garish Hindu temple paintings. India also has a lively contemporary art scene and is rich in folk art traditions.

The art found in India varies a great deal depending on where it is found and depends on the religious traditions, historical influences, traditional skills and raw materials found in that area. The greatest proportion of surviving old art is made of stone and was used to decorate sacred structures. Paintings were also produced but many of them have been lost to time. Fine metal images were often created with sacred purposes in mind and were often used to grace altars, and particularly in southern India, were honored in temple processions and festivities.

Indian art has had a great influence on the art of Asia. Mandalas—"geometric diagram symbolizing a structure of cosmos"— found in Tibetan and Buddhist art are of Hindu origin. The great temples of Angkor in Cambodia and Prambanan in Indonesia began as Hindu structures and were strongly influenced by Indian art and architecture. Some Indian gods morphed into Buddhist gods and Bodhisattvas are made there way to China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Some of the best Indian artworks are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. India wants them back.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain deities are depicted in ideal human forms to symbolize their transcendent and divine natures. Other civilizations—such as the Greek, Egyptian, and sub-Saharan African peoples—have also used ideal human forms to visualize beliefs about divinity, moral behavior, and beauty. A comparison of their creations with South and Southeast Asian images ( and with images from our own culture) shows that how the ideal human body is portrayed depends upon the beliefs of the culture in which the art is made.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain statues and paintings of the gods were created as a focus for worship and meditation. Narrative reliefs illustrating stories about the Buddha or other deities contained an underlying ethical lesson. At another level of meaning, these religious images expressed in visual form complex philosophical concepts about the nature and workings of the universe. Smaller images were made, perhaps for personal worship and contemplation in monastic or domestic shrines, or as votive offerings. Most larger Indian sculpture was set into the exterior walls of a sacred structure, to be worshipped by devotees as they circumambulated the exterior. Jain temples, however, were set in walled courtyards and their interiors were covered with sculpture.” <*>

Books: 1) Blurton, T. Richard, Hindu Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993; 2) Craven, Roy C., Indian Art. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997; 3) Dehejia, Vidya, Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1998.; 4) Eck, Diana, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India . Chambersburg, Pa., Anima Books, 1985; 5) Harle, James C., The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent (Pelican History of Art). 2d ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994; 6) Huntington, Susan L., The Art of Ancient India . New York: Weatherhill, 1984; 7) Kinsley, David R., Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; 8) Knight, Elizabeth, ed. “Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the Arts of South and Southeast Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”; Kossak, Steven, Indian Court Painting: 16th–19th Century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997; 9) In the Image of Man: The Indian Perception of the Universe through 2000 Years of Painting and Sculpture. London: Art Council of Great Britain, 1982; 10) Lerner, Martin. “Aspects of South Asian Art in the New Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art”; Asian Arts, 24, no. 2 (March–April 1994), pp. 70–112.

Video: Legacy: India: The Empire of the Spirit, 1991, color, video; Produced by Maryland Public Television & Central Independent Television,U.K. This program, part 2 of Legacy, presents a history of India and its people and discusses the origins of the caste system, the symbolic figures of Hinduism, and the development of Buddhism. The video also explores the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro built in 4000 B.C., and asserts that the villages of India best reveal what life in India was like in ancient times. The program credits village life with the long endurance of the Mahabharata, a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit epic. Visits to temples in the great temple cities of southern and northern India are featured, as well as a trip to Fatehpur Kikri, where the buildings of Akbar the Great still stand. Further, the video discusses how knowledge was transmitted through trade and credits India with the mathe- matical system still used throughout the world today. (60 min.) Distributor: Ambrose Video, 28 West 44th Street, Suite #2100, New York, NY 10036, (212) 768–7373

Web Sites: 1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) ; Asia Society (www.askasia.org/) ; 2) AskAsia is an integral part of the Asia Society’s Asian Education Resource Center (AERC), an initiative to organize and disseminate Asia-related infor- mation and resources; develop student-centered institutional materials; and provide teaching strategies and staff development programs. 3) Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (www.asianart.org/ ); 4) The John C. and Susan L. Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu/ ), Under the On-line Exhibitions section see “Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion”; 5) Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org/lacma.htm ), Images of and information on ten masterpieces in the South and Southeast Asian art collection; 6) Seattle Asian Art Museum (www.seattleartmuseum.org/ ); 7) Smithsonian Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (www.si.edu/asia/ )

Early Religious Practices and Art in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities. <*>

“Some time after the collapse of the Indus civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.” <*>

Early Indian Art That is Neither Hindu or Buddhists

Because the first Indian stone sculptures (3rd century B.C. in South Asia) were so skillfully conceived and finished, it is assumed that there must have been an earlier, well-developed tradition of carving in wood sculpture.

Describing a terra-cotta plaque with a royal family from West Bengal, with neither Hindu or Buddhist influences, from dating to the 1st century B.C., Kossak and Watts wrote: “Although most early terracotta plaques portray deities, this one shows a porch with two columns framing a scene of a royal family at ease. The man is seated on a throne and his wife stands to his left. They wear extraordinary headdresses (hers counterbalanced by a large curving blos- som, probably a foxtail lily), lavish jewelry (some of which was probably made of strung flowers), and elaborately pleated costumes. Affectionate gestures link the couple: they touch each other as the woman leans gracefully toward her husband and looks toward us, drawing us into the scene. Her full breasts, narrow waist, and wide hips represent the female ideal in Indian art. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Below the royal pair sits a chubby child wearing a beaded cap and heavy pleated robe. He seems unaware of the howling dog he holds on a chain, or the two ducks and the monkey that surround him. The patterns on the floor where he sits and the carved details on the column capitals and bases and on the lintel suggest the luxurious decoration of ancient palaces con- structed of wood. Terracotta plaques like this were made from terracotta molds, which means the image could have been duplicated several times. Working in clay enabled the mold maker to create the remarkable details seen here, some of which were created after the impression had been made with small stamps. The function of such plaques is unknown. It might have been suspended from a cord passed through the two holes near the upper edge.

Metaphors and Symbols from Nature in Indian Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Artists created ideal human forms by using a vocabulary of metaphors derived from nature. This vocabulary was codified during the Gupta period (mid-4th–6th century), and artists worked from this repertory to make their images. Eyes were to be shaped like the curve of a little fish or a lotus petal, eyebrows like an archer’s bow, lips like lotus blossoms, the chin like a mango stone, and arms like an elephant’s trunk—or, in the case of a woman’s arms, long and tapering like a perfectly formed edible root. The male torso should resemble the frontal view of a bull’s head or the chest of a lion, and the female torso should be shaped like a narrow-waisted drum (called a damaru). [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Often Buddhist and Hindu deities, male and female, are depicted with three rings around the neck, a symbol of beauty and good fortune. They are a metaphor for the three folds at the opening of the conch shell. The genius of the Indian artist was the melding of these disparate quotations from nature into ideal bodies that are at once human and transcendent—appropriate vessels for gods and spiritual beings.<*>

“Identification of Hindu and Buddhist Deities: In Indian art, worshippers recognize images of an individual deity or spiritual being by the particular attributes he or she holds, and by the deity’s pose, gestures, color, and adornment. Certain symbols are common in the iconog- raphy of all three religions. <*>

The Lotus: The Indian symbol par excellence is the lotus, sign of spiritual perfection. As its flower rises unsullied from the muddy waters and blooms to the sun, so the devotee attempts to rise above the impure, illusory world and become transformed through enlightenment into a spiritually perfected being. The lotus appears in art both as a complete blossom and as stylized petals that form the pedestal upon which spiritual beings sit or stand. <*>

The Wheel (chakra) is another symbol with several layers of meaning. It represents the doctrine preached by the Buddha in his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The words he spoke are called “turning the wheel of the law.” In Hindu thought, the wheel symbolizes time and the cycles of creation and destruction that form successive universes. It is also one of Vishnu’s attributes, where it functions as a weapon in the form of a discus. <*>

“The halo or nimbus of light frequently surrounds the heads of deities, particularly Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and often envelops their entire body to signify transcendent radiance. It is thought that this luminous symbol originated somewhere in western or Central Asia and spread eastward to India by the second centuryA.D. and westward by the fourth century, when it appears in Christian art to signify spirituality. Halos also appear in Hindu sculptures and were later adopted by the Mughal and Rajput aristocracy in their portraits.” <*>

Adornment and Expressions in Indian Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Hindu deities and bodhisattvas wear the lavish jewelry and elaborate hairstyles of Indian royalty as well as the “sacred thread,” a symbol of learning and the transition to adulthood worn by the upper castes. It crosses the left shoulder and falls in a curve across the torso and around the right hip. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“One of the most striking features of Hindu and Buddhist art is the portrayal of multiarmed and occasionally multiheaded gods. These images express the multiple powers and responsibilities of the gods. The several hands were needed to display the deity’s attributes and to make gestures that symbolize concepts associated with the deity. Because the attributes, gestures, and physical form of each god are distinct, worshippers can identify each god by these features. <*>

“Although the majority of sculptural figures are idealized and sublime, occasionally they are ugly and horrific. To the Hindu and Buddhist faithful, these wrathful deities are protective because their terrifying energies are directed against evil and ignorance. In Esoteric Buddhist thought, they represent human failings such as greed, hatred, and ignorance which one must recognize and overcome on the path to enlightenment. Often Hindu and Buddhist gods are depicted as serene in one guise and wrathful in another. Such contrasts reflect the Indian belief that dualities in our world are only an illusion. Seemingly opposite forces are merely aspects of the same ultimate reality. <*>

Poses and Gestures in Indian Art

Vidya Dehejia, a Smithsonian curator and professor at Columbia University, wrote: “Indian artists often portrayed deities with multiple arms to emphasize their omnipresence and omnipotence. A variety of hand gestures, known as mudras, are used to express mood and meaning of the images of the gods. For instance when the palm is raised to face the worshiper, it is the gesture of protection ( abhaya), while a lowered hand with the fingers pointed downward signifies a promise to grant the devotees wishes ( varada). The contrapposto pose known in India as tribhanga, or triple-ben, was a popular stance; it produced a sense f swaying movement, and the mist images whether human or divine, are this poised. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Smithsonian curator and professor at Columbia University ]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Many poses commonly found in art—such as the lotus position— are drawn from yoga which, according to myth, was practiced by the gods. Another source for poses and gestures in South Asian sculpture is classical dance, which evolved in Hindu temple ritual and in performances at royal courts. With a visual vocabulary of particular movements and gestures well known to their audience, dancers acted out the adventures of the gods and heroes of India’s great epics. Contemporary dance performances in the traditional style have been revived by following descriptions in ancient texts on dance, called the Natyashastras, and also by studying the poses of figures in temple sculpture and wall reliefs. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The most common poses in art are: 1) An iconic frontal pose (samabhanga) with both feet equally supporting the weight or with one knee very slightly bent. 2) A swaying pose with the weight on one leg, the head and lower body slanting in one direction, and the torso moving in the opposite direction. This thrice-bent (tribhanga) pose suggests potential movement. 3) The seated meditation pose derived from yoga commonly known as the lotus position (padmasana) in which the legs are crossed with feet upturned. 4) The seated pose of royal ease (lalitasana) in which one leg is folded so that the foot rests on the seat and the other leg hangs down. 5) A dancing pose in which all the weight rests on one leg. 6) An active standing pose in which a deity tramples upon a demon; one leg is bent, the other is stretched out at an angle. <>

Formal Elements of South Asian Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “With the exception of certain areas like the Gandhara region, which was influenced by late Roman art, the anatomy of figures does not emphasize the internal structure of muscle and bone. Rather, it expresses a body purified of these elements and instead filled with spirituality. As the vessel of prana, sacred breath of life, the body seems to swell from within; flesh is rounded and the skin is taut, so that the volumes of the entire body flow smoothly one into another. This conception of prana derives from yoga, an ancient method of achieving spiritual insight through control of mind and body. Despite the strong sense of volume in most forms of Indian sculpture, stone figures are rarely portrayed fully in the round. They are actually in very high relief, perhaps because most sculptures were set on the external walls of religious structures and were meant to be seen from only one side. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The sensual female figures in Indian art take their forms from ancient nature goddesses whose full breasts, narrow waists, and generous hips symbolize the abundance of the land and the female’s procreative powers. Images of the major male deities have broad shoulders and curving contours with slender waists and powerful thighs, a physique that suggests both power and spirituality. The prana-filled bodies of both males and females in Indian art evoke a serene otherworldliness. This is not surprising, as they are spiritual beings who have passed beyond the actual physicality of the human body. <*>

Measured Proportions: Canons of proportion were devised to create the ideal anatomy. The figure was divided according to the number of tallas in its height. A talla is a h and span from chin to top of forehead. These canons varied slightly from age to age and region to region. In general, earlier figures tend to be shorter and stockier than later ones. <*>

Scale and Placement of Indian Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “When sculptors and painters depicted groups of figures surrounding the main deity, they used a hierarchy of proportion to clarify each figure’s relative spiritual importance. Even important deities are shown smaller if they are not the main gods in the scene. In iconic (rather than narrative) representations, the placement of the figures is balanced by the main deity in the center. Lesser gods, guardian figures, celestial musicians, and dancers often appear as the god’s entourage in both Hindu and Buddhist art. Again, size indicates their relative importance and they are placed in less prominent positions flanking the central figure. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Color: Indian stone sculpture was probably originally painted, as is modern sculpture on Indian temples. Marble figures, however, were generally left unpainted to preserve the purity of the white stone. Only the eyes were inlaid or colored. Many bronze statues were gilded. Ancient texts and illustrations on palm leaf (the traditional surface for writing and paint- ing before the Muslim introduction of paper in the thirteenth century) indicate that specific colors were associated with specific deities. When a god had multiple faces, each face often had a distinctive color. Colors were also used symbolically in Buddhist cloth paintings of Nepal and Tibet. <*>

“Surface: Contrasts On images of bodhisattvas and Hindu deities, intricate details of the head- dress, hair, jewelry, crowns, scarves, garlands, and drapery create pleasing contrasts with the smooth prana-filled flesh.” <*>

Artists in the Classical Period of Indian Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Artists were born into their craft and trained in family guilds under the supervision of a master craftsman. They followed detailed instructions, outlined in texts and given by monks and priests, describing the appropriate proportions, poses, and expressions for each deity. Artistic talent and imagi- nation were not entirely curbed, however, because styles did change slowly over time. This is clear when comparing works of art from different periods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The most talented artists were employed by temples, monasteries, members of royal courts, and wealthy merchants. Carvers, painters, and sculptors often congregated in regional workshops and were employed whenever a local temple was being constructed. Whether the temple was Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain did not seem to matter. Presumably, the same artists were also employed to create secular buildings, few of which survive. <*>

“Little is known about these carvers and metalworkers. Artists rarely signed their works. It is not known whether this anonymity was purposeful (perhaps for religious reasons) or related to the craftsman’s rather low position in the social hierarchy. It was believed that erecting a sacred struc- ture accrued merit (good karma) for the patron in this life and in future lives, so that his name is often the one inscribed on the building. <*>

“In Southeast Asia, it would seem from written records in temple and court accounts that artists were viewed as merely craftsmen and artisans not worthy of mention. Sculptors, painters, and metalworkers probably congregated in court workshops or regional centers. Although iconography was based on Indian models, artistic talent and imagination were not entirely curbed. Regional styles emerged and developed—a fact that is clear when one looks at the works of art in the slides.” <*>

Indian Painting

Indian paintings is found in caves, temples, manuscripts, and the courtyards and roofs of homes. The majority of works are mostly unsigned. Most art was produced to honor a God or has some other religion significance and the artists presumably felt there was no reason to draw attention to themselves.

Indian paintings are mostly two dimensional and lack perspective. Realism is secondary to drama, sensuality, romance and beauty. Art critic Holland Carter of the New York Times: "One of the great themes of Indian painting is the hero in his many guises: as warrior, god, ruler, lover, larger than life both part of life, giving lesser mortals a model to emulate and sometimes fear." Many traditional Hindu paintings have songs that accompany them. Sometimes museum curators will sing the song for you of you ask.

Indian and Hindu paintings is known for its bright colors and extraordinary detail, in some cases painted with brushes made with a single squirrel hair. Paintings in temples often features bright colors, gaudy and grotesque images. Many artists use watercolors and gold pigments and burnish the surface of the painting to a high shine. Jains used gold and lapis Lazuli pigments. The pigment Indian yellow was traditionally been made from soil soaked in the urine of cows fed mango leaves. The process was later banned because it was considered disrespectful to the cows.

History of Indian Painting

India's tradition of painting dates back to the frescoes in Ajanta and Ellora caves painted between the 3rd century B.C. and the A.D. 10th century. A few painted Indus civilization objects have been found but they do not really constitute painting as we understand it. Ancient literatures describes the widespread use of painting but only a few fragments remain from the 1st century onward. Among these are the A.D. 1st century wall paintings on Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur and the Kalamkari paintings in Veerabhadra Temple, Lepakshi.

Illustrated manuscripts painted on long-narrow palmyra leaves survives from the 11th century. When paper was introduced a century later, artists continued to use the horizontal format of the palm leaf. Painted artworks from India include Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts, Jain texts, old paintings of Krishna and other Hindu gods, and Mughal miniatures painted with tempura on paper. Ragani painting depicting musical nodes are unique to the world. Some of the well-known Indian painting schools are the Rajput, Deccan, Kangra and Mughal.

Ajanta Cave

Ajanta Caves (62 miles from Aurangabad) is a set of 30 man-made caves overlooking a wide horseshoe-shaped gorge. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the caves features hundred of paintings and murals made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 650, which are considered to be some of the finest Indian painting and the most important Buddhist art in the world.

The caves were formed through the erosive action of nearby rivers and enlarged with chisels and hammers by Buddhist monks into residences, temples and schools. Each cave is adorned with statuary. Many contain wall paintings that record episodes in Buddha’s life and major Buddhist events.

The paintings are mostly frescoes made on a layer of plaster rather than directly on the cave wall. The cave paintings were made by applying mud plaster in two coats on the rock walls. The first was used to fill in the pores of the rough rocks. The plaster for this layer was made of rice husks and other organic materials mixed with mud and covered by sieved gypsum. The second coat was lime plaster that could be painted on. The outlines of the paintings were made with red ocher and filled in with brown, deep red and black. The pigments came mostly from local minerals, many local volcanic rocks, with the exception of bright blues which came from lapiz lazuli from Afghanistan.

The painting at Ajanta Caves offer insight into the clothing, body ornamentation and court life of the period in which they were painted. Among the best works are the Bodhisattva Padmapani, an expressive work of a male figure with large, soulful eyes and lotus flower in one hand; and a 1,500-year-old work showing a princess getting the bad news that her husband has renounced his crown to covert to Buddhism. In a mural in Cave 10, fifty elephants are painted in different poses.

The paintings are known for their fluid yet form lines, sweeping brush strokes, subtle color gradations. The later painting feature bold color washes and shadowing and color used to highlight facial expressions and create a sense of depth.

Regional Indian Painting

The Hindu Rapiuts and kingdoms in the Himalayan foothills produced delightful paintings in manuscript and on long pieces of cloth. Dehejia wrote that manuscripts from these and other groups “illustrate a variety of texts that narrate the myths surrounding the Hindu gods, or deal with the theme of romantic love. The paintings at several of these courts...were not interested in simulating reality; rather they painted stylized figures in strict profile, placing them against broad areas of rich color, and thus creating a fanciful world of the imagination.”

Artist working from the 16th century onward under the Maharaja of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu produced great paintings that were decorated with precious stones, beaten gold leaf and gilded metals were applied with a mixture of glue and sw dust. Many of the figures in these paintings were Krishna in different poses.

Kalamkari painting involves drawing outlines with burnt tamarind twigs dipped in molasses and iron filings. Repeated subdued colors made with vegetable dyes are used make large epic scenes. Patachitra painters associated with Jagannath Temple in Puri paint on cloth and palm leaves treated with chalk, tamarind seed and gum.

Tamil Ground Painting

Peasant women in Tamil Nadu adorn the thresholds to their homes with elaborate floor designs, known as kolam, made from chalk, lime, crushed stone, and colored rice flour. Elderly members of the household often draw them every morning under the belief that they will keep evil out of the house and bring prosperity. More than a million homes have them. The custom is centuries old. The designs, also known as alpana, rangoli or rangavalli, are found in other parts of India, particularly the south.

Describing a Tamil Nadu artist at work, Stephen Huyler wrote in Natural History, “Just as she does every morning, she pours water from a small brass pot into her hand and sprinkles it over the dirt beneath her feet, making it firm enough to draw on, Bending straight over at the waist, she takes large handful of rice flour from a little metal bowl and quickly drops it onto the ground, followed by an another and another, all evenly spaced, until she has created a diamond-shaped grid of white dots about five feet high on each side.”

“Then with further pinches of flour, she deftly draws thin white lines between the dots—some straight, some curved—rapidly transforming the packed earth into the petals, leaves, stamens and stem of a lotus blossom. Because it is a special festival day she fills in her picture with colored powders before going inside to awake her family and prepare breakfast...Each drawing is ethereal. As the day begins and family members come out of he house and into the street, they walk over the kolam, smudging the design. Bicycles, scooters, bullock carts, vans and buses all rapidly eradicate the artwork; within an hour all traces of it are gone.”

Most of the designs depict animals or plants but geometric designs are also popular. Each region has its own styles. The Deepavali festival features decorative designs made from grains of rice. The largest kolam in the world was produced in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The 70-x-40.5 meter masterpieces was made over 18 hours by 450 volunteers with 1,800 kilograms of rice.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015


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