Floor Art Practices in India

Floor art and craft practices, some of which are over two thousand years old, are found across India and are regionally known by different names such as rangoli, muggu, alpana, and kolam. Traditionally made by hand, these line drawings are created using rice powder, crushed limestone, or powdered white stone pebbles. They get more patterned and decorative during special occasions, often embellished with flowers, petals, leaves, and seeds as well as other natural materials (Ghosh 2019; Gode 1947; Laine 2018, Narasimhan 2004; Rasmussen 1997; Sengupta 2019). Floor art rituals have been researched from various perspectives: as a historical practice originating in an ancient Indian text (Gode 1947); as a form of surface adornment carrying symbolic and religious meaning (Kilambi 1985; Rasmussen 1997; Sengupta 2019); as a marker of cultural identity (Ghosh 2019; Laine 2009); as a visual and graphic representational technique (Narasimhan 2004); as a medium of creative expression and learning tool (Ghosh 2019); and as a gendered practice and for the politics of aesthetics it raises in foreign cultures (Laine 2012, 2018).

Floor art is considered to be a form of vrata, or observance, practised mostly by women. Vrata in Sanskrit means ‘vow’, ‘devotion’, or ‘resolve’, referring to a practice or disciplined process that includes personal prayer, chanting, or silent meditation. The motivations to perform a vrata vary, and include wishes for success, happiness, or fertility, or the desire to ward off danger or negative forces. A large repository of symbols is drawn upon in creating vratas, mostly elemental abstractions that are ethnologically, culturally, and historically related to their specific contexts, and often passed down through generations (Archana 1987; Dhamija 1970; Gode 1947; Ghosh 2019). In contrasting wall art patterns with floor art, Rasmussen (1997) observes that people depict secular themes on wall surfaces, whereas floor patterns are created for festivals and celebrations, or are expressions of reverence related to natural phenomena such as eclipses, lunar and solar cycles, stars, solstices, landscape elements such as rivers and hills, plants and animals, supernatural aspects of life such as the spirits of our ancestors, and Hindu gods or mythological events. 

Gode (1947) who has traced rangavali floor art between AD 50 and 1900 from historical perspectives observes its continuation as a domestic and religious tradition for over 2000 years. A physical enactment that serves people’s spiritual needs, its origin is traced to one of the sixty-four arts mentioned in the Kamasutra, an ancient Indian treatise. Kilambi (1985) explores muggu floor art in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, interpreted as both a form of solar worship due to its enactment early in the morning and a prayer to the feminine essence of the sun god since it is performed by women. Ghosh (2019) chronicles the evolution of alpanas in Bengal, a type of folk art interpreted as a symbol of cultural identity, an aesthetic ritual, and a medium of creative expression and learning. Her research documents the range and versatility this practice involved, and traces the skill and expertise that specifically developed around it. More broadly, Rasmussen (1997) examines floor art as a form of surface design in the context of wider Indian traditions – those involving enhancing, ornamenting, and decorating surfaces for specific purposes, such as tattooing on the human body. In focusing on the symbols used, she notes that surface designs convey religious ideas and other cultural meanings, and that there are recurring symbols seen across various Indian floor art practices.


Kolam and Rangoli

Of the various floor art practices, those seen in the southern regions of India have been most relevant to my practice, as I live and practise in the South Indian city of Bangalore. Here, floor art is referred to interchangeably as kolam and rangoli. Kolam is considered a type of rangoli where patterns are more geometrical and composed using dots around which lines are looped or connected. While rangavali, or rangoli, is a broad umbrella term for all floor art practices in India, it also refers to the one practised specifically in the state of Maharashtra.

For over twenty years, I have encountered traditional rangoli and kolam during daily walks in my neighbourhood, outside house thresholds and courtyards on the streets near my home. My interest in their aesthetic aspects developed as the patterns gradually revealed to me the design application of various botanical elements and the indigenous ideas of beauty operating within my surroundings. The renderings were often bright, bold, and highly symmetrical, often embellished with both real flowers and leaves as well as stylised and mostly abstract plant representations.

Kolam in south India is created inside and outside homes, at altars, and in temples and workspaces, and is traditionally made as a daily activity by women in order to invite deities into their homes, as an invocation for well-being and prosperity and to ward off negative spirits (Laine 2009; Kilambi 1985). Sengupta (2019) has traced its similarity to the practice of drawing patterns in the sand found in many South Pacific islands and African cultures, as well as to floor mosaics in ancient Rome. Drawing the kolam is an act of prayer through which one asks for both protection and prosperity – it engages the maker and the viewer in an interactive relationship of ‘shared beneficence’ (Sengupta 2019: 2). Various fields have intersected with this practice – textiles, therapy, computer graphics, ethnomathematics, ethnomusicology, and tactile spatial education for visually challenged learners, for example. Narasimhan (2004) has explored kolam in the context of writing and as an alternative and tacit form of literacy. As a visual and graphic representational technique, it transmits cultural meanings that reside as a form of embodied intelligence in the kolam practitioner. Laine (2018), through gender perspectives, discusses the challenges posed to British aesthetics through this ritual. Her explorations investigate alternative aesthetics circulated by this practice within British environments, and the varying expectations from women and men in creating these designs.

Tadvalkar (2013) discusses the hieroglyphic nature of rangoli and claims it was a picture-writing process that preceded the development of an actual writing script. Traditionally, making a rangoli diagram was referred to as a ‘writing’ act, and not as a drawing or painting activity. In Maharashtra it was called rangoli lihine, in Kerala kalam ezhuthu, and in Northern India chowk likhna [1] (Nilesh 2019). Tadvalkar (2013) suggests that rangoli has a far deeper significance beyond its decorative and auspicious purpose – it serves as a medium of communication to those familiar with its symbols. Iyer (2020) questions why kolam and rangoli were not regarded within historical, scholarly, and artistic perspectives, while referring to kolam as an ‘(in)visible craft’ (131). He cites Sengupta (1997: 2) who claims that historically, British officers during colonial rule in India disregarded the kolam and its regional adaptations in their remuneration of traditional Indian and craft practices. Laine’s (2009) research also identifies no historical reference for kolam being cultivated as a craft practice. It is considered a ritual, with knowledge of the specific skills involved in making these intricate designs having being sustained via oral and visual histories, and transferred across generations of Indian women while functioning within domestic and ritual settings. In seeking to give voice to the aesthetic outcome of this everyday ritual, Laine (2009) notes that perspectives excluding everyday art and craft are essentially underpinned by aesthetic judgements. Huyler (1994) refers to rangoli as both a ritual practice and an artistic tradition that serves social and metaphysical needs for Hindu families and its daily enactment shows both internal orderliness and self-respect as well as piety. 

Sosale (2013) observes that this traditional art, a local cultural practice that is essential a non-monetary activity, has now been incorporated into transactional domains due to new media technologies and digitisation. Although it is a centuries-old tradition, modern adaptations and transitions keep this form alive. In rangoli competitions held all over the country, and performed by both individuals and groups, it has been used to create awareness on various social issues, and its collaborative dimension makes it an important social and cultural practice, as is noted by Redwood, Gale, and Greenfield (2012) while using it as a participatory art-based activity to elicit data within their medical research. Sengupta and Deb (2015) look at its cognitive influence and investigate the assumption that the visual perception of rangoli relieves the mind – they look at how this therapeutic dimension of rangoli-making can be automated through computer-aided mechanisms, by studying how the style and complexity of the designs are constructed in order to create interactive drawing robots to mimic this human skill. 

The Indian diaspora worldwide is struggling to maintain the continuity of their cultural traditions and rituals and kolam today is practised to a limited extent within the daily lives of these Indian communities (Ghosh 2011; Johnson 2005). Urbanisation, economic development, and changes in social structures especially with women having entered the workforce have adversely affected attitudes towards traditional kolam-making, as has globalisation and migration. Limited drawing skills, lack of time and space, and low motivation jeopardise the survival of kolam in its traditional form (Balamani 2015; Jagadisan 2018; Laine 2009; Rahbarnia and Chadha 2015; SenGupta and Deb 2015). 


Plants in Kolam and Rangoli

Real plants and plant motifs are widely used across all floor art practices in India, with kolam being no exception. The pookalam, a specific type of kolam, is made entirely with real plants arranged circularly on the ground forming a welcoming floral mat. Pookalams are a part of cultural rituals in the southern state of Kerala, in which traditionally some plants came from the Dashapushpam, a group of ten auspicious plants considered sacred due to their curative properties (Uthaman and Nair 2017). The bright yellow flowers of the mukutti or little tree plant that is popularly used has medicinal value – by searching for this plant to use in the pookalam, people end up engaging with it as part of this ritual. Thus, while the decorative qualities of plants may appear to give rituals an aesthetic dimension, ritual acts bring therapeutic plants into peoples’ lives (Sachdev 2019).

Many Hindu rituals are replete with plants within which they play a significant role for various reasons, therapeutic as well as symbolic, mythical or ecological. In kolam for example, and in other floor art as well, different explanations prevail for the use of rice. The qualities of powdered rice have been compared with both the Hindu and the Buddhist philosophical concept of impermanence and change as being a part of one’s life – fine particles give rice powder the characteristic of ephemerality when they are dusted or blown away. The grain is also easily available all over India, is cheap and affordable, and is central to harvest festivals in several parts of the country (Ramaswami 1938; Kilambi 1985). Kolam patterns are usually washed off every morning, after which a new pattern is created, and the materials reflect the inherently fleeting nature of this ritual art (Laine 2009). According to a popular religious myth, the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi dwells in grains of rice, thereby making it an auspicious material. In another interpretation, since rice can be eaten by insects and birds, its use in floor art aligns with the idea of anna-dana, a Hindu religious ideal that refers to the sharing of food.

Terms for the kolam ritual involving wet and dry rice also draw attention to the material properties of the plant. Ordinary kolams are drawn with dry flour, while makolams are created with wet paste made by soaking rice grains in water and then grinding the mixture to a smooth consistency (Ramaswami 1938). Rice paste is also mixed with vegetable dyes and minerals for colour, or mixed with chalk or lime to impart greater whiteness. White is used for its association with the notion of purity in Hinduism (Gode 1947). In order to add colour to the white powder, pigments have traditionally been derived from plants, such as red from the roots of the madder plant and blue from the leaves of the indigo plant. Coloured materials also include different botanical elements – leaves, seeds, flowers, and flower petals, and also dyed rice (Ghosh 2019; Laine 2018; Rasmussen 1997).

[1] The English translation of lihina and likhna is ‘to write’– the terms rangoli lihine and chowk likhna refer to rangoli as a form of writing, and ezhuthu translates to ‘letter’. Chowk refers to a junction at a marketplace or street, usually a flat open area in the shape of a square, and in this case alludes to the threshold area outside homes where the rangoli is drawn, at the juncture between the exterior and interior of the home. ↩︎