Floored For Life


The concept of mutability is central to certain forms of Indian art, particularly folk art. Unlike western art, where mutability can express loss or a reaction against commercial imperatives, within an Indian context it speaks directly to the philosophy that underlies Indian culture. There is, across India, a rich heritage of art that is decorative and by its nature – the material used, the place it is created and the purpose for which it is created – temporary. Embossed motifs, called sanjhis, moulded onto walls during the fortnight of pitri-paksha in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, are scraped off and replaced every evening. Vast models of Ganesha are modelled in clay and terracotta to be returned to the sea every year at Ganesh chaturthi. The ephemeral in its truest sense, however, is represented by India’s tradition of decorative floor art. Using simple materials that are at hand, this is art inspired by daily life, which marks the passing of time. Deliberately transitory, floor art transforms ordinary space into sacred space, but gradually disappears as people walk over the designs or may be purposefully erased as part of a ritual.

Each region has its own style of floor art. The materials, techniques and designs differ, but they also share common elements. In the south, graceful white kolam, patterned like openwork lace, adorn the entrances to homes and household shrines. Kolam is drawn every morning using pinches of finely ground rice flour held between the thumb and forefinger, released in a steady and continuous flow. As the lines swirl and intersect, small focused patterns emerge, which are repeated and elaborated over an expanding space, building to a large circle or hexagon. The rangoli designs of northern India are densely filled with lavish applications of coloured rice or powder, and sometimes petals. Rangoli range from simple geometric patterns, often based on flower and petal shapes, through to elaborate designs crafted by several people. Rajasthan’s open-air floor paintings, called mandana, are created in village courtyards. They are drawn freehand using a small piece of cotton rolled into a ball and soaked in a liquid paste made from red and white powders mixed with water. The alpana floor art of Bengal also depicts flowing motifs and more pictorial images using a smooth and runny liquid paste made from rice flour and water. The liquid is gently squeezed with an even pressure from a cotton swab to draw the design. A figurative form of floor art is to be found in the kalam tradition of Kerala. Here, as part of their ceremonial worship, ritual painters create anthropomorphic representations of the gods on the ground with natural vegetable powders. The five colours used — white, yellow, black, green and red — create vivid representations that will remind viewers of the characters in a Kathakali or Yakshagana performance.

The creation of these decorations usually inaugurates the beginning of an activity. Kolam is drawn to mark births, weddings and other auspicious occasions. Rangoli, mandana and alpana herald Diwali. Typically, alpana will include tiny stylised footprints inviting Lakshmi to cross the threshold. Mandana paintings observed by French artist and writer Chantal Jumel depict the goddess at the cardinal points and the Om symbol at the centre of the design. They are at once an invocation to Lakshmi and a symbolic representation of the goddess. Floor decorations are present in temple worship, particularly the kalam, which is drawn as part of a temple ceremony of expiation and purification. The kalam is circled by the komaram, a devotee who takes the leading role in the puja. He enters into a trance, invoking the presence of the deity through the image, and utters words and blessings that are believed to be those of the god. At the end of the ritual, the same hand that has given life to the kalam sweeps it away, erasing it and dematerialising the divine body.

Most compelling, however, is the creation of kolam across millions of households in the small towns and villages. They are erased during the course of the day by passers-by, visitors and household members, only to be created anew the following morning. This daily ritual is integral to the significance of this art form and is layered with meaning. Kolam is a mark of good housekeeping and order, and show dedication to the family. The spaces where they are drawn are wiped clean and purified by the adornment of the kolam. Kolam is auspicious, a kind of 'painted prayer' as Chantal so eloquently says, that creates a sacred space.

Floor decoration is a strong form of female expression and collective enterprise. As with so many of India’s indigenous art traditions, the primary exponents are women, who pass from mother to daughter the folk memory of traditional designs and their symbolism. Drawing the kolam is part of the daily ritual cleansing of the home, and is believed to be effective only when made by the women of the house. Only with kalam, located within the iconography of temple ritual, is the creation of floor art a preserve of men. Here, Chantal notes, boys learn the ‘Kalam-Ezhuthu Paattu’ (literally, ‘to draw and sing the kalam’) by assisting their fathers ‘until they are considered worthy themselves’.


This is not an ancient custom. The practice of drawing threshold designs may date back only 500 years but the geometrical patterns and symbols that are common across the various styles are ancient, and laden with specific meaning and spiritual undertones. These include, at their most abstract, the mandala, the sacred circle that represents the cosmos; mystic geometrical configurations called yantras that are the visual equivalent of the sacred prayers or mantras; and the complex symbolic cosmology of signs that evolved from Tantra, handwritten doctrines of faith that were laid down to achieve control over natural forces and the self. These symbols build into an infinite number of patterns, a visual language that is read by the viewer. The nalvaravu, or welcoming kolam, is used to invite wedding guests into the home. Circular kolam are associated with the abode of the gods, and are created to draw Lakshmi’s abundance to the home. Snake kolam are used to protect the house, and to purify the household members in mind and thought. Not all floor art is so reduced to abstraction, however. Motifs such as lotus flowers, birds and fish emphasise the oneness of man and nature. Chantal writes of mandana patterns that are inspired by village life, listing ‘ear millet designs… cow hooves, oil lamps, inkpots or pens to symbolise yearly accounts, a scale and weights to increase trade.’

What they all share, however, is the symmetrical nature of the designs, which are pleasingly balanced and in proportion, reminding us that they represent order and seek to attract the divine. Observers have noted the simple mathematical properties of the patterns, particularly the grids on which they are formed. The kolam, for example, is produced in units of sub-patterns that can fill any given size of space. Chantal talks of the form exhibiting ‘centre, symmetry and multiplication’. This need for such precision for something that has to be destroyed and created anew the next day seems paradoxical. The women who create floor art take great pride in their work (at festival times there will be friendly competition amongst the households of a street, each trying to outdo the other). The precision of a piece is an aid for younger women to learn and memorise the patterns. Most importantly, these are a conscious offering to the divine, demanding perfection.

To see the temple kalam swept aside or the kolam washed away seems almost an act of desecration. However, the conclusive nature of floor art is integral to the form. The Buddhist notion of impermanence, called ‘anicca’, is a distinct doctrine in India. Existence is transient, in a permanent state of flux, as represented by the cycle of birth and rebirth. This applies to all beings and to their environs, and attachment to worldly phenomena can lead only to suffering. Yet despite the ephemerality of floor art, it has encompassed many people over time, challenging our perception of the artist as creating a visual statement that lives long after the creator has passed away. Here the opposite is true, and again we must look to the Indian context in which creating art in an individualised style is a relatively new idea. We may lift the creator of floor art to the position of ‘artist’, but ultimately she, or he, is performing a duty within the framework of domestic life for the welfare of the community and as an invocation to the divine.

Welcoming the Dawn

A stroll at dawn through the earthen lanes of a village or the narrow streets of a city requires not only an attentive eye, which attempts to make out the surroundings, but also a sharp ear. The chirping of nocturnal insects and cawing of crows is followed by the rustling sounds made by straw brooms and the slapping noise of water being thrown onto the ground. Then in the half-light, women holding boxes of white powder draw dots and lines on which flowers, birds, deities symbols or geometrical patterns will emerge. If there is music in these lines, it is both joyful and voluptuous as it fades away under the footsteps of the first passers-by, bicycle tyres, pushcarts and the small trucks which go on their way carrying away miniscule particles full of good intentions. The day has begun.