Written by Anna P. Kambhampaty
Every year around this time, more than 1 billion people worldwide celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, with warm family meals, bursting fireworks, glowing lamps and an ornate ancient Indian folk art known as rangoli.
These geometric patterns, religious symbols and floral designs are drawn on the floor of one’s home, often using chalk and colorful powders, as a way to ward off evil spirits and welcome the good faith of gods and goddesses. The word “rangoli” is derived from the Sanskrit word “rangavalli” and roughly translates to “rows of colors,” a fitting image for Diwali’s message of light conquering darkness.
“The Christmas tree is to Christmas as rangoli is to Diwali,” Jugnu Verma, an artist and arts educator in Columbia, South Carolina, said in a recent phone interview. “It’s incomplete without it.”
While making rangoli can be celebratory, it is also a daily ritual for many women in India and throughout the diaspora — a tradition that grounds them in challenging times. Verma, 40, who has been making rangoli for three decades, said the focus required to make rangoli “helps develop meditative power.”
She was born in Bihar, India, where her mother created a new rangoli every day outside their home, and moved to the United States when she was 27. “It was a very difficult time,” Verma said. “I was far, far away from my family for the first time.” She frequently felt lost and lonely.
That changed when a friend invited her to make henna tattoos and rangoli for a cultural event at the local library. The experience helped Verma connect with her new community. “I didn’t know many people here, but when they saw my art, they wanted to know more,” she said.
Verma often makes rangoli using edible materials such as rice flour, turmeric and lentils, so that any creatures that pass her doorstep can feast on her creation. It’s OK if her designs are eaten by insects, trampled over by visitors, whisked away by wind or washed away by rain. That impermanence is part of the form’s beauty.
This idea, of feeding as many souls as possible during the day, pervades the tradition, though the style of rangoli can vary throughout India. The kolam, in Tamil Nadu, is traditionally made with white rice flour. Each work starts with a grid of dots, which are then connected with various patterns of lines and curves. The result is a highly computational drawing.
“Four hundred million Hindu women do some form of this kind of art or ritual sometime during the year,” said Vijaya Nagarajan, the author of a book on the kolam and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of San Francisco.
Though I’d always noticed in my own family that the ritual was done only by the women of the household, I realized through conversations with Nagarajan that it is almost universally closely tied to female experience. In conducting research for her book, Nagarajan spent time in Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu, where she spoke with people whose gender expressions were fluid. “They made the kolam when they woke up in the morning and felt like a woman,” she said. “They would dress in their sari, put the jasmine flowers in their hair, braid their hair and make the kolam. It’s an indication of gender, even if the gender is fluid.”
In recent years, kolam artists have adopted the multicolor tradition of the rangoli — though the change has been divisive, especially at kolam competitions in India. “If the judges were more traditional, elder judges, the traditional kolam was the best, most aesthetic,” Nagarajan told me. “But if they were younger women, they would say the rangoli was better, reflecting the fascination with color and changing notions of beauty.”
Srividya Vallurupalli, 46, a software engineer in Danville, California, experienced that shift firsthand. “When my mom was growing up, it was only done with white powder,” she said. “In our generation, the colors got added.”
Once passed down through generations of Indian women, typically from mother to daughter, the art of rangoli is now the subject of countless tutorials on social media. Instagrammers such as Kanchan Kauthale, 36, who lives in Maharashtra, post step-by-step photos of their rangoli creations. On TikTok, rangoli videos take the viewer from simple outline to bold pattern at a mesmerizing speed; together, posts tagged #rangoli have more than 840 million views.
At the same time, the ritual has become less and less of a daily practice. “People are using paints so that they don’t have to put the rangoli every day in front of the house. It can last for at least a few months to a year,” Vallurupalli said, unlike traditional rangoli, which is largely at the will of the elements.
In the winter of this year, when the United States was starting to see a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, India was entering another deadly wave. There have been more than 34 million reported cases in the country, and estimates have put the death toll around 4 million.
“In India, with all the people dying and dealing with this problem, you just pray,” Verma said. “Making rangoli is the same as praying.”
In the midst of the crisis, my grandfather on my father’s side died in Vijayawada. He didn’t die from COVID-19, but the travel restrictions and health fears made it impossible to see him. No one in my immediate family could be there to hear his last words or even attend the funeral. In lieu of more traditional rites, we held a small ceremony at our house in Syracuse, New York.
Anyone who’s been to central New York in the winter knows that snow is a constant of the season. So rather than making our rangoli outside, my grandmother and I constructed one at the base of our fireplace, following a YouTube tutorial and gridding our design with Crayola chalk. The final design was a row of white flowers surrounded with green detailing. The rangoli is still there today.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.