Decoration and Veneration

Reflecting on collaborations with artists reveals uses of various media in working with this floor art ritual along with an involvement with various aspects of plants. The botanical workshop collaboration with Johnson involved experimenting with the material properties of rice, harnessing its novelty as a drawing medium with the Swedish public. Rosenthal’s collaboration prompted further research into the grain’s botanical aspects in terms of varieties grown in India, the varieties preferred by locals, and issues surrounding genetically modified foods in the context of India’s agricultural revolution. This project was also an occasion to graphically present my questions regarding colonial approaches and dominant pedagogies concerning plant study within current botanical art curricula. While Rosenthal increased her knowledge of the physical structure of rice by scientifically illustrating the plant, we both also discovered environmental, ecological, and economic perspectives on the plant. For example, I found out that basmati rice is one of the more expensive varieties and that IR8 produces more grains of rice per plant under certain conditions, almost quadrupling rice production – hence its wide use in India’s Green Revolution starting in 1965. 

In ‘Rangeen Rangoli’, different varieties of plants were used; but knowing their names or their cost price was not a central aim and the focus was on flowers and their symbolic use as indicators of acts of intimacy. In contrast, in ‘Interactions in Public Space with the Flower Project’, participants had to engage with financial information and economic aspects by purchasing flowers at the market. This project brought to attention the availability of local flowers, which were then composed with decoratively and symbolically. According to Sengupta (2019), an individual’s aesthetic experience of kolam concerns its symmetrical composition and that this kind of composition correlates with the Indian concept of the cosmos. Representations that appeared decorative could thus have underlying motivations other than just the aesthetics guiding their use, such as religious veneration or talismanic orientations. Thus, kolams I had photographed near my home may have been intended to decorate the streets as much as sanctify them. Tadvalkar (2013) has discussed the symbolic purpose of rangoli and how its patterns indicate particular forces or qualities linked to sacred aspects of creation and human evolution – for example, four intersecting lines symbolise the eight cardinal points, footprints indicate the arrival of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, creeper patterns signify fertility and progress, prickly plants ward of evil spirits, and the lotus refers to the opening of one’s mind to divine consciousness.

The sanctity of plants also underpins their wide use in Indian festivals, and this is further linked to the reason why the Calendar video (video below) selected festivals as a basis. Plants are a significant part of many religious and agricultural rituals and festivals in India due to their centrality as a source of food, shelter, and sustenance (Baindur 2009; Malla 2000; Patnaik 1999; Gupta 2001; Jaitly 2007). By marking festival days with images of flowers used in rangoli and by indicating the other days of the year with images of only line drawings, Calendar drew upon the significance of plants in Indian cultural life. Regarding material, this video also showcased a new material through Mehra’s gallery exhibition, that is, light projections instead of real flowers. As a light-based counterpart to real or hand-drawn images, at that time in 2011, Mehra’s was an innovative use of light as material for both decorating and sanctifying the gallery floor with rangoli.


Multiple Modes, Ways of Knowing, Interpretive Frameworks

The collaborations show that in rangoli and kolam plants are used in diverse ways – as a writing vehicle to carry protest messages; for their popularity as a local ritual material of expression; to spatially map public attitudes; to transcend gender roles within rituals; and to aestheticise, decorate, or sanctify spaces. Different aspects of the plant world were foregrounded that include characteristics of specific rice varieties, colonial pedagogies within botanical art education, the religious significance of particular plants, the availability of specific plant varieties within particular geographies, and the locations where plants are traded and sold. The archive images reveal rangoli and kolam as practices that have been translated through new forms of media and also adapted into contemporary contexts. Patterns traditionally made by hand have been transformed into stencils, and real flower decorations have given way to shiny petal-shaped beads. Simple curvilinear and abstract shapes have turned typographical, and occasions that were once celebratory now include events of protest. Drawings made with rice powder are replaced with coloured light projections, and white lines on the floor are now available as stickers with brown backgrounds, resembling mud on the floor. An art form that was traditionally made by letting rice powder slip between one’s thumb and fingers has over time evolved to evoke different human senses with the development of new tools of expression such as LED light projections, stickers, and tubes and stencilled plates and stamps.

It is critical to address multisensory understandings in order to make pedagogies genuinely inclusive by embracing learning through a variety of sensory formats and modes. Educational interventions that integrate information from a wide range of multiple modalities promote active learning, recall, and support long-term retention of knowledge (Mayer 2002; Kiefer and Trumpp 2012). Adopting a multimodal perspective includes using various approaches that address diverse learner needs (Cope and Kalantzis 2015; New London Group 1996; Whyte and Schmid 2019). 

The interventions discussed indicated that individuals not only have ways of knowing but also have preferred modes of interpretation – cultural as well as other interpretive frameworks through which they make and attribute meaning and value to phenomena. For example, some learners got more excited than others by activist orientations in ‘Rangeen Rangoli’ that challenged what could or could not be articulated in public spaces. Others were stimulated by economic perspectives in the ‘Interactions in Public Space with the Flower Project’, where they woke up at 5 a.m., a time when commercial activity peaks, to visit the flower market. Yet others enjoyed culturally novel approaches and scientific connections to the subject matter, as in the ‘Pedagogy with the Botanical’ workshop where visitors to the botanical gardens in Gothenburg drew rangoli with rice powder. Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory (1983) conceived of human intelligence as multiple and not as singular or general. Similarly, there seem to be multiple modes of interpretation that engage and activate learners, albeit to different degrees. These multiple modes of media and interpretation were evident through the pedagogical collaborations described above.

Botanical and Cultural knowledge

The term ‘botanical’ implies a specific type of knowledge of plants, relating to their structure, physiology, ecology or environment. This can be distinguished from symbolic, mythical aspects of plants, or their aesthetic characteristics. The semantic differences and blurring boundaries between botanical and cultural information was highlighted in working with Johnson and Rosenthal. During Johnson’s collaboration, I had the option of finding out the names of fresh and dried plants collected from in and around the botanical gardens in Gothenburg, Sweden, and of educating the visitors at the garden about these plants while using them in the rangoli. Instead, rather than on finding out more about specific botanical characteristics of plants, my workshop focused on a general introduction to rangoli and its cultural specificity while experimenting with assorted powders and stencils. However, with Rosenthal we explored botanical qualities of rice and in ‘Rangeen Rangoli, we used rice powder as a vehicle for its indigenous popularity. It was a medium familiar to the workshop participants, even though it’s use was for non-ritual purposes, i.e. to uncover public perceptions with regard to people’s freedom in public spaces. The medium of this ritual and it's cultural familiarity were both utilised in eliciting visual expressions from an audience. [3] 

My search for a basis by which to approach rangoli as a form of botanical art practice has come to end with the awareness that as an art and design pedagogue, I can use ritual and cultural practices to engage creatively with botanical knowledge through the tools, methods and processes of art and design. However, the botanical information encountered through these practices is not limited to plant anatomy and extends to botanic perspectives such as the different kinds of plant varieties available in a region, the seasonal presence of specific flora, the textured properties of a powdered plant, specific varieties of plants that sacred and valued within a community for their beneficial properties, or the geographic climactic conditions within which certain species thrive. Thus, for rangoli and kolam to be considered as forms of botanical art practice, the term ‘botanical’ would need to inhabit a wider interpretation than that evoked by convential understandings of  'botanical art'  and it dominant visual association with accurate plant structure. 

[3] A similar kind of use has also been seen as recently as December 2019, where both men and women, in the South Indian city of Chennai used kolam to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, drawing out messages that voiced their dissent (The Hindu, 2019; Jain 2019). Thus from being traditional invocations for prosperity, kolam was appropriated as a vehicle for political protest. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrants who have lived in India without any documentation. It affected  Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Protestors argued that CAA discriminates against the Muslim community, and that it violates the constitutional right to equality. Members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu decorated areas outside their homes with kolams containing anti-CAA messages. ↩︎