Life is a Rangoli

Published in India Abroad

After 30 years, I drew a rangoli the other day. It was at a Diwali party, an unusual event for me, who, after three decades in the United States, is still on the margins of the Indian-American community, even though thousands know me through my writing.

Perhaps it is my atheism; perhaps it is the non-traditional lifestyle I have always lived.

I was shocked to discover therefore that, among the group of Indian women, I was the only one familiar with the art of rangoli; I was the only one who knew that it had to be drawn with a powder the texture of sand, that the traditional design started with a white grid of points, that it did not require stencils.

As I squatted on my friend’s porch, long forgotten patterns floated in front of my mind’s eye; kamala flowers arranged in an octagon, a lamp and its flame; a blue skinned Krishna playing his flute, a Tulsi Vrindavan.

A flood of memories rushed in; while drawing a rangoli, Aunt Vimal misconnected the points, and ended up covering up her mistake by moving the powder around, a definite no-no in the rangoli world.

I can still hear her uproarious laughter, like that of a student who had pulled a clever trick on her teacher; Vimal was, after all, the comedian in the family. My mother, the math wiz, on the other hand, could draw hundreds of rangoli designs without pause, extemporaneously.

Rangoli patterns were embedded in women’s psyches for generations, I think, through their mothers and grandmothers.

One year, at the rangoli competitions in Nagpur, someone drew a thick Persian rug the size of a room, and Aaji, my grandmother, was so fooled by the illusion, she stooped to straighten its corner, which had deliberately been folded over.

As I began to draw my rangoli the other day, people marvelled that I possessed the skill after all these years.

It was like riding a bicycle I said, once you had learned it, you could never forget it.

Some Americans wondered how I would preserve the art. I would not preserve it, I explained, I would simply let it vanish with the ravages of weather.

You spent hours laying out the grid and filling in the colours, I said, then you turned your back and went on with the rest of your life. My childhood was underscored with the very idea of transience.

I would string flowers for garland competitions during Ganesh festival, for example, taking so much sensual pleasure in the patterns of white tagar interspersed with red and purple roses, only to see them wilt the next day.

During Diwali, I would make a fort in the front yard, complete with turrets, ramparts, and figures made out of a Mekano set. One year, my father made a lake out of an inverted thali and the reflection of the saffron coloured flag in the stainless steel looked so real, everyone thought it was water.

During Pola, I painted my little brother’s bull and marched it around the block.

So, as I drew my rangoli the other day, I marvelled at the fact that I, the product of atheistic parents who had always decried the abuses carried out under the name of Hinduism, was the only one in the group with the deepest connection to its traditional arts.

Was it because of my upbringing in a provincial city like Nagpur, where Western amusements like rock and roll were not available; where the only toys and distractions were the ones we made for ourselves?

Or, was it because my parents had dismissed religious dogma in favour of better aspects of their culture? Was it because, in spite of her strident unorthodoxy, my mother had inculcated in me the mental challenges involved in the pursuit of traditional arts?

The essence of rangoli was geometric design, typically consisting of an odd number of points; I explained to the Diwali guests. The closest parallel, I said, was to the geometric Mudejar designs the Moors had created in Spain.

Did the Islamic invaders take them from India [ Images ] or bring them to her, I suddenly wondered. Or did the two cultures independently develop these art forms, so similar and yet so different; one ephemeral, the other immortalised in stone and ceramic?

Everything we did during my childhood was temporal. Unlike American mothers, my mother did not save my hand prints imbedded in clay, she did not frame my doodling from art class, she did not take photographs of the ducks and birds I made out of shells and feathers; we did not possess a camera in any case.

In Western culture, acquisition, accumulation, and preservation is the name of the game. No wonder then that workshops are given on topics like How to Live in the Moment. Books are published with titles like The Power of Now, steeped in Hindu philosophy.

We, on the other hand, learned at an early age that everything was evanescent. Perhaps the weather of the tropics too was responsible for this state of mind; my ducks and birds, stored in a large chocolate tin, for example, soon succumbed to the decay of time.

Art was transient, we learned, like life itself. So we spent hours drawing a rangoli and filling in the colours, then the next morning, we swept it away and sprinkled the mud-plastered yard with water to draw a fresh design.

When I first arrived in the US, I was surprised by the American tendency for preservation, for posterity. Every Christmas present was kept, every heirloom was safeguarded, as if without material objects to associate them with, human connections would cease to exist.

Junk was considered antique; sentiment was equated with possession, Madison Avenue having encroached even on this sacred terrain. Watching Americans talk of their belongings, sometimes, I wonder if they think they are immortal.

When my mother was lying in her deathbed about a year ago, I tried to sort through my parents’ old correspondence, only to discover that it had been eaten away by termites.

It did not matter, I told my brother, because I still had my memories.
I felt foolish bringing back to America the now tarnished medals and trophies I had won for dance and debate; they carried little meaning without my parents’ evocations of my childhood exploits.

Now that I am of a certain age, I am trying to rid myself of extraneous baggage, material and emotional.

When I feel pangs of longing for my children’s childhoods, already distant; when I miss being in love and bemoan the annihilation of my marriage; when I look enviously upon the young students walking around the Berkeley campus and fantasize about travelling back in time and reliving my life, I remind myself of rangoli.

These different chapters of my life seem to me then like designs drawn with rangoli. They all had a purpose in the moments in which they were lived, I think. I am glad I enjoyed them tremendously, and if certain drawings, like my marriage, did not last, then I try to rejoice the new patterns they have been replaced with.

But the bygone experiences remain in my heart, like old rangoli drawings, their vibrant colours still vivid in the imagination.

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