The art of evanescence

January 6, 2013

It’s impossible to go to India and not be entranced: the country is such a riot of colour and noise and smells that you can’t fail to be transported by something every day. On my most recent trip there, I was seduced by what are called rangoli.

These are colourful designs in the doorways and courtyards of people’s homes, made of chalk or rice flour, which are created anew every morning by the woman of the house.

The area of Tamil Nadu where we were is very keen on rangoli, or kollam, as they’re known there, and almost every home, from the gorgeous old palaces which cluster in some of the villages, to the meanest shacks, sports wildly colourful doorway floor designs, which are new every day. Generally they are done just after dawn.

A rangoli

A rangoli

Rangoli are a very Hindu art form, and are often startlingly complicated, with an astonishing variety of shapes and symbols and colours. I would get up every morning to watch a rangoli painter called Mahalakshmi create a new one for the hotel where we were staying, and it was breathtaking: her imagination and her artistry. The only tools she used were her hands, which poured the flour in graceful swoops and lines, filling in blocks of colour with a supernatural deftness.

Mahalakshmi at work

Mahalakshmi at work

What I think I liked so much about rangoli is how they seem to celebrate the idea of living in the present. Works of art that are made to be destroyed and remade differently the next day; they’re beautifully fleeting, and seem to say something about the human spirit.

Another rangoli

Another rangoli

There is also a theory that the coarse rice flour can be eaten by ants and birds, so inviting other beings into one’s home, and acting as a daily tribute to the idea of harmonious co-existence with other creatures. Which is nice.

Mahalakshmi's hand

Mahalakshmi’s hand

What a great country.

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