It’s the 14th of January, the day rural Bengal celebrates the abundant harvest and the goddess Lakshmi. We finally arrive in the artist’s village and it’s Rabi himself who welcomes our small group. After our initial greetings and a few words of welcome for me in English, he takes us to his grandmother’s house.
The path leading to the home is covered with footprints painted in white to show Goddess Lakshmi the way to their home so that she may bless its occupants. Rabi’s grandmother Sumitra is in the middle of the courtyard. Wrapped in a white shawl, she draws on the beaten earth with a confident hand, guiding the milky substance between her fingers.
Rice is the essential ingredient for the drawing of alpona. The grains of rice (1) are soaked for hours before being finely ground into a liquid paste.
On this morning, the countryside wakes up to a different dimension under her able fingers, the silky whiteness tracing the outlines of daily objects, or of those which are desired. It’s an austere white, somewhat similar to the mystical white that prefigures the transmutation of the profane to the sacred in many initiation rites. Rabi the chitrakar (2) describes the objects appearing around the large circular alpona. We see a bucket, a pot, ladles, a basket, and a few essential farming tools like a hoe, a wooden rake, sickles and a ladder. We also make out a winnowing basket used to separate straw, husk and dirt from the grain; a tool used to de-husk rice called dheki (3); and a bonti, which is a curved blade attached to a wooden block used to cut fish as well as vegetables. Offerings of a pair of earrings and bracelets for the goddess complete the circle.
On the perimeter, two cats seem to be coveting a pair of fish attached to a line, or it may be the nearby heron that intends to snatch them. In another corner of the courtyard, images of a crocodile (kumir) and a tortoise (kachin) catch my eye. These are the vehicles of the two river gods, Ganga and its tributary, Yamuna. Ganga is standing on a makara (4), while Yamuna perches on a tortoise. A garland representing an ear of rice bending under the weight of its grains encircles the entire courtyard and adjacent paths. Meanwhile, imaginary flowers have created an earthly paradise: a lotus flower traced with alternating straight and undulating lines, flowers with swirling centres, and others resembling stars.
(1) Atapchaul or sun-dried paddy.
(2) The Patua community of West Bengal narrating and singing from village to village, epic and mythological stories painted on paper scrolls.
(3) An agricultural tool used for threshing, to separate rice grains from their outer husks. A heavy wooden foot-operated mortar and pestle.
(4) The goddess vehicle is either an Indian gavial (Gavialis Gangeticus) or a mythical creature called Makara.