Moved by this graceful and invocatory action, I think back to the opening shots of Jean Renoir’s The River, and understand why the filmmaker had chosen to start the film with images of the creation of an alpona as a homage to the memory of his father, the painter Auguste Renoir. Sumitra has finished and disappears into the house. I admire the walls and entrance doors. Like the pages of a school notebook filled with enigmatic symbols, the ochre coloured walls decorated with drawings and symbols are a snapshot of the beliefs and religious customs of rural Bengal. These pictorial compositions open to the sky remind me of the illustrations I’ve seen in the only book published in French on this art, the translation of Abanindranath Tagore’s « L’Alpona ou les décorations rituelles au Bengale »  (Alpona: Ritual Decoration of Bengal)[1], published in Paris in 1921.

On the walls before me I find some of the same drawings I had seen in the book and which had made such a big impression on me. Today it’s Rabi who describes the meaning of each of the motifs. There are farming tools, kitchen objects, lotus flowers, fish, birds, abstract human figures, divine feet, bori[2] drying on a rack, mangoes, betel leaves, a palanquin, a jar of vermilion, arm ornaments, and round grain baskets called gola, made of strips of bamboo. Friezes embellish the supporting columns of the veranda, while a creeper made of stylised conch shells covers the upper frame. Climbing the few steps, I notice the two owls painted on each side of the double entrance doors, facing each other. In Bengal, this nocturnal bird is the vehicle of the goddess Lakshmi.

Sumitra reappears dressed in a red and orange sari and walks towards the large alpona, carrying a tray of flowers which she places on a carpet of unhusked rice. Sitting cross-legged, she begins the ceremony of worship for the Goddess, making the customary offerings and ending with many salutatory gestures.

Afterwards, over a cup of tea, Rabi Biswas tells me about his passion for ritual decorations. As a child, under the admiring eye of his grandmother, he would paint on paper bags made by a neighbour for shopkeepers. When he started collecting different alpona designs from the village ladies, his grandmother was delighted and decided to teach him the art. As a result of his passion, he has created a book illustrated with pictograms related to local traditions.

  • [1] Abanindranath Thakur known as Tagore was a painter, illustrator and a writer. Born in 1871 in the family of the philosopher Rabindranath Tagore which he was the nephew, he was the creator of the “Indian Society of Oriental Art” to promote traditional Indian arts.
  • [2] It is a dried lentil dumpling popular in Bengali cuisine. It is made from a paste of urad dal sun-dried for several days.