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Published: December 16th 2016
Suriya always includes a message in her Rangoli.
”We cannot touch the top of a tree—the branches get too thin and weak, and we would break them if we tried to climb them. So we must instead touch the sky.” That is the message of today’s Rangoli.
Today is the first day of Margali, a month-long observance when the nights are longer and the air is cooler. And for each day of the month, women rise early to prepare their canvas, on the ground outside their doorsteps, where they create mandala-like designs—called a kolam or Rangoli—of white outlines and color-filled spaces. Ground white rock or rice and colored powders are their paints, their hands are their brushes.
Normally Suriya would rise by 4:00 am and finish by 6:00 am. Only because I wanted to see did she set the time later, 6:30 am. By the time I reached her, she had started her design with a colored square, and I had no idea how large she would make it or how much time she would require. She has developed time-saving strategies to make the process quicker. She uses a small sifter to place color in large spaces, places
a small round cup down and sprinkles white around its edges, leaving a perfectly round blank center. She uses other specially made sifting tools to create thin parallel lines and intricate designs. She moves quickly, does not hesitate in choosing colors or placing each line.
“Women are so busy in their daily lives. They take care of their husband, their in-laws, their children—they don’t have time for themselves. When they draw the Rangoli, they exercise their bodies, stretch their arms and hands, and they improve their mental health.”
Over the course of an hour, this determined young woman intently sifted the white rice powder through her fingers, focusing on each element of her design, growing it into her own self-expression. She sat down, then got up repeatedly to get more colored powder or a tool. She rarely spoke. Her hands absorbed her thoughts, melted with the surface, with her design, a moving meditation.
She never knows the final appearance of a design when she begins. Even with this one, we both started photographing the finished image, only to have her return to it to add details and change its final appearance.
“I don’t have enough space
here. At my grandmother’s house there is much more, and I can make them very large.” She appeared to use every square inch in front of her doorstep.
“How do you feel about people stepping on it?” I asked.
She paused and looked at me, stone-faced. “I want to slap them,” she said. While she created this one, her neighbor needed to use his motorbike, requiring that he pass by her Rangoli. He avoided going over it with his front wheel, but the rear wheel smashed one side of it. Suriya’s face remained set as she picked up her containers of colored powder and sprinkled over the tracks left by the tire.
The design emerged, while life happened all around. Her ten-year-old neighbor, with smiles and intent, created her own faltering design across the courtyard. The son of another neighbor pumped and pumped water into plastic and metal containers, which his mother hoisted to her hip and carried inside their house. Another neighbor created a colored design, a flower-like image, then lit a wick dipped in oil and placed it at the top of her stairs. It burned for five minutes, then left a dark spot. Another
neighbor quickly drew her Rangoli—she was expert at allowing two lines at once to flow from her fingers, and so her image included numerous parallel lines. The grandma, gray hair clipped short, stiffly bent over nearby, then sprinkled water and swept the area around her steps, and laid down simple white lines. A young boy with a mobility impairment called out for his sister from inside his house. Cinema music blared from speakers overhead.
“Puu-eee,” a woman cried from the street. I signaled to her, and she entered the courtyard with her basket of flowers on her hip. I bought a single strand of bound white fragrance for Suriya, for her hair, so she could smell as sweet as her creation was beautiful.
All the other neighbors around her had finished, but Suriya was still hard at work, until she stood up and looked at her art. She started taking photos, but then went back with her powder to add some details. Finished, again, and she looked happy.
Her work would be short-lived. In the late afternoon, she would sweep it up, sprinkle with water and remove all traces, then start a new design.
Zen-like, I thought. Nothing is permanent, that’s an illusion. Everything is ever-changing. This design would live a few short hours, and even then, people might step on it, the motorcycle would drive over it again, the wind would blow.
Try to grab on to something—a physical thing, a feeling, a thought, a relationship, a place—try to preserve it, keep it from changing. Can’t be done, and if you try, it may mean the quick death of that thing. So why do we seek to do that? It’s comforting to know what to expect, yes, to hold on to that beauty or good feeling.
Instead, seek to allow for transformation, for rebirth, for growth. Sense the essence of whatever gives pleasure now, feel it fully in the moment, and allow it to pass and continue its cycle of death and rebirth.
I took a photo of Suriya’s final Rangoli, hoping to be able to look on that image in the future and recall the feeling I had as I watched her create it. But the image is only a fragment of the experience, and I know that the moments of watching that design’s birth, with all the energies
that contributed to its appearance, can never be re-created. Not exactly.
And so it is. Let it be. Just let it be. For me, that’s the message of Suriya’s Rangoli.
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