Thousands of years ago when humans did not know how to read and write he communicated by means of drawing pictures. The walls of caves where early man lived, whether it was in India or France, have been found to be full with primitive drawings. The art of alpana, practised by Indian women for centuries, is one such form of visual expression.
Alpana has different names in different parts of India. In Bengal, it is Alpana, it is Kolam in south India, Rangoli in Maharashtra, Osa in Orissa, Aripana in Bihar, Sonarakha in Uttar Pradesh, Sathiya in Gujarat, Aripona in other regions of north India and Apna in western Himalayas.
The art of creating various kinds of wall and floor patterns, Alpana patterns are mostly made by the women. These patterns are usually geometric or floral in nature. They are made from a variety of materials like coloured dals, rice, wheat, dyed sawdust, and colours.
During Lakshmi puja in November, special alpanas of a pair of pretty feet are drawn, outside the homes of people. The feet belong to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and are meant to ensure prosperity to people.
In spring, before the sowing of the seed, a tender green colour is used to draw the alpana. In autumn when the seeds mature, it is drawn in vibrant yellow and in winter at the time of harvesting, it is drawn in the brown-gold of the leaves of autumn. An important feature of the alpana is that the entire design should be an unbroken line. It is believed that gaps provide an entrance for evil spirits.
Decorating the floor in different parts of the house is believed to be a good omen. The entrance decoration is a gesture of welcome. For over 3000 years, the women of Mithila have drawn wall and floor paintings to avert natural disasters, protect their crop, and pray for the well being of their husband and children.
In Rome however, people painted their walls for a totally different reason. There were very few windows in their houses, so in order to decorate the empty walls they painted frescos. The artist applied a thin layer of plaster on the wall and then directly painted on the wet plaster.
The ceilings and walls of the world famous Sistine Chapel, one of Rome’s most enduring landmarks, are covered in frescos that depict stories from the Bible. Michelangelo painted them in the 16th century.
In India most tribal paintings were made on the mud walls of huts, terracotta figures, wooden sculpture and occasionally on leather, all materials that deteriorate fast. In fact most wall paintings were expected to disappear within a season so that another painting depicting a new season could be drawn. Floor patterns on the other hand were made daily to depict the beginning of a new day.
Of all the wall and floor painters of India, the women of Madhubani are the most celebrated. They cover the wall with a coat of natural colour usually made with cow dung. Then they dip their finger in a rice paste to draw the patterns. They mostly draw scenes from the epics as well as local tales.
In fact the notion of paintings on canvases that are displayed on the walls of art museums is a relatively modern one. They date from the time when a price began to be attached to this art form. The earliest paintings have always been made on walls and floors and ceilings, and they connected in a much more immediate way with people than many present day masterpieces on canvas.