Yet another instance of art losing out to modernity
Shoma A. Chatterji, Kolkata
April 21, 2017

An NRI film-maker, nostalgic about her memories of the lace-like motifs hand-painted by her grandmother on the floor and walls of the puja room in her childhood home to celebrate religious festivals, sets out to document an art that is fast fading. Broto Alpona, a documentary, draws overwhelming response wherever it is screened

Alpona is the Bengali name for beautiful floor paintings. The art was part of rituals linked to Hindu festivals. The name differs from one region to another. While it is alpona in Bengal and Assam, it is aripana in Bihar, pakhamba in Manipur, jinnuti in Odisha, mandana in Rajasthan, rangoli in Maharashtra, sathia in Gujarat, chowkpurana or sona rakhna in Uttar Pradesh, likhnu in Himachal Pradesh, apna in Almora and Nainital regions, kolam in Tamil Nadu and muggulu in Andhra Pradesh.

The white lines of the painting are deftly made by dipping fingers into rice paste. Sometimes, a dash of red, made generally with alaktaka dye or alta as it is called in Bengali, is added as relief but most of the time, the designs are in simple white. It is exclusively the domain of women and girls. Or rather was, because it is a fading art and now, with printed floor stickers taking the place of the intricate, hand-drawn designs.

Within such an ambience of cultural and creative loss, Sarbari Chowdury, who has been living in Arizona for years, has paid a lovely tribute to the art of the alpona with a documentary titled Broto Alpona. Broto can be loosely translated to mean ritual. The film focuses primarily on how the designs are dictated by the occasion and the purpose of the depiction. The film offers an enriching and educative experience about an art that is losing out to modernity and the changing priorities of women, who have either never been taught the art or did not have the time or inclination to learn it from older generations.

What motivated Sarbari to make this film? “As a child I had seen my grandmothers perform many brotos – the simple rituals accompanied by lyrical chharras (small rhymes) and, most importantly, the beautiful alponas they drew – filling the puja room with dainty, lace-like motifs. The motifs changed with the ritual or festival it was associated with. The house was fragrant with dhoop (incense). However, all that seemed to have disappeared even in my parent’s generation. The beauty of those alponas lingered with me. On a visit to my ancestral village Aminpur, I went around asking folks there about these brotos and their alponas. The new generations even in villages no longer practise the numerous brotos, and the alponas today are just for decoration. This motivated me to study the subject and then the film happened,” says Sarbari.

The brotos described and illustrated in the film include the punni pukur broto, dosh putul broto, senjuti broto, gaye holud ad bou boron (used exclusively at weddings), aranya shashti broto (where the forests are worshipped), the lokkhi puja broto and so on. The designs differ according to the occasion but the purpose of all of them are more or less the same – they petition the gods for good husbands, good in-laws and the gift of sons as well as the grace to be good daughters-in-law. Sabari concedes that this is a very chauvinistic practice as it centres on the marriage of a girl and her life as a good wife and daughter-in-law.

Art director Amit Chatterjee and his team, with villagers’ help, created this brown mud-house look.

The lure of forms of mass entertainment, such as television, the spread of education among girls which resulted in diluting the importance of rituals based on superstition, and the changes in lifestyle and beliefs which the spread of women’s employment brought in its wake are the reasons for the fading away of this art form, according to Sarbari. Her film was shot entirely on location in Bolpur (Birbhum); Krishna Nagar (Nadia) and Aminpur (South Dinajpur). The art department of Vishwa Bharati helped her design the locations to give them the look she had in mind.

“My art director Amit Chatterjee made the locations look as if they belonged to the early 1900s. Even the path through the palm trees was just perfect. Chatterjee and his team created magic and the villagers helped us recreate the brown mud house look,” Sabari explained. “I was lucky to find a content expert. Sumitra Mondol of Krishnanagar is an expert at brotos and is a talented artist; she and her grandson were my consultants for this project. There is very little documented information on broto alponas. Abanindonath Tagore’s Meyeder Broto Kotha is an important foundation. But I could not find a single video on this subject and only a very slim volume in English,” she says.

The film has a beautiful musical score that never dominates the visuals or the subject and yet leaves behind a resonance. “Pandit Kumar Mukherjee worked with me for the score while Pandit Rupak Kulkarni provided the flute.

An elderly woman prepares rice paste used to draw the lines and designs.

Kumar took great pains to compile the music and his extremely talented disciples lent creative support. We added the Bangla dhol later on and though it was next to impossible to get a dhol player, Kumar managed to find one,” Sarbari says. The only downside is that a few of the girls picked to play young brides are a bit too urban and classy to fit into the old village surroundings.

When Sarbari failed to source funding for the film, her husband and some close friends pitched in to make it possible. Wherever broto alpona has been screened, the response has been overwhelming. When it was screened as part of the 22nd Kolkata International Film Festival last November, the hall had an occupancy of 80 per cent, unusual for a documentary. Many women approached Sarbari to tell her of their childhood memories and thanked her for bringing the dying art form into the public domain. The film won the Award of Achievement at the Chandler International Film Festival.

March 2017