Rangoli – intricate, brightly coloured Indian floor drawings traditionally made with dyed rice powder – are created to mark special occasions such as festivals, weddings and births. We dropped in for a chat with Vijaya Mohan, a world-renowned rangoli artist who learned to draw rangoli as a child, and adapted the traditional art from her childhood in South India into a contemporary, inclusive art form that spans cultures and communities.
It was obvious within seconds of arriving for the interview that we had come to an artist’s house. Smudges of purple and yellow powders, remnants of a rangoli drawing, were still visible on the floor outside the front entrance. The paving stones leading to the backyard were painted with whorls of colour. There were art pieces dangling from the ceiling, stacked behind the dining table, even nestled amongst the plants in the garden.
“Rangoli give people a lot of positive energy,” explained Vijayalakshmi “Vijaya” Mohan, 58, upbeat and smiling in a saffron-coloured dress. “When people come into the house and they see the designs, you get lots of positive vibes, which you need during a happy occasion.” According to her, rangoli – the term having been derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘colour’ – are meant to bring health, wealth, and prosperity to a household and help to drive evil spirits from the home, keeping misfortune at bay.
Drawn to It from an Early Age
Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Vijaya began learning how to create rangoli from her mother at the tender age of five. “My mum had learned from my grandmother, and it was passed down from generation to generation in our family. During December, before the harvest festival, it’s a tradition for the girls of the family to get up very early, around 2.00 am or 3.00 am, and start filling up the design outside the house in a very elaborate way.”
Little Vijaya would follow behind them to watch and learn. “I used to follow them around. I would bring a paper and pen and see which of the designs I didn’t know, and copy them down.”
More than 50 years on from those early days, Vijaya has come a long way. On top of holding the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest rangoli, which she set in 2003, she has had her pieces exhibited in the Esplanade and the Gardens by the Bay. She has also been commissioned to create pieces all over the world, from Mauritius to Dubai, and has even guest-lectured at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She estimates that she has created around 10,000 rangolis to date.
A photo of the official certificate for Vijaya’s Guinness World Recording-setting rangoli. Photo courtesy of Vijaya Mohan
Rangoli “Lao Shi” (Teacher)
Originally a teacher by profession, Vijaya moved to Singapore with her family in December 1992. She worked as a kindergarten teacher initially, and later joined the Rainbow Centre as a special needs educator, where she found she enjoyed helping her students communicate through art. In the mid-2000s, she learned that Lasalle College of the Arts would be starting a Masters programme in Art Therapy, and seized the opportunity to marry her love for rangoli with her passion for using art to enrich others’ lives.
Vijaya graduated as a member of the programme’s inaugural class in 2007, aged 48, and she now practises as a freelance art therapist and rangoli artist.
“I find it a healing art, because the participants get sensory stimulation from the colours and materials, and it makes them happy when they use certain colours,” said Vijaya. She conducts rangoli workshops at schools, community organisations and nursing homes, where many of her students are from non-Indian backgrounds. “They really enjoy it, and when they see me, they call me rangoli lao shi (Mandarin for “teacher”), so I think they’re happy learning,” she chuckled.
Vijaya (front row, fourth from left) with participants of her “Rangoli Bangle Dangle” workshop, which she organised for the National Kidney Foundation for Singapore Art Week 2016. Photo courtesy of Vijaya Mohan
Inspired by Singapore’s multiracial society, Vijaya adapted the traditional art form for a cosmopolitan and cross-cultural audience, as well as for those not able to spend hours crouched on the floor to draw rangoli.
“Traditionally, rangoli are drawn on the floor and you have to bend over to do it. Not everyone can do that. Living in a multiracial society like Singapore, I want everyone to learn and know about the traditional art of rangoli, so I modify it a bit.” Vijaya decided to retain the customary designs, but to use unconventional materials like macaroni, beads, dyed rice, and even repurposed CDs. These can be pasted onto a backing such as a sheet of clear acrylic or corrugated plastic boards, so that unlike traditional rangoli, the finished piece can be preserved or even brought home.
She came up with this approach when she was commissioned by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the mid-1990s to create a rangoli for the opening of an Indian restaurant in the hotel. “They wanted to introduce Indian culture to people – rangoli, henna, food, that sort of thing,” she explained. “However, they wanted me to create the rangoli on a carpeted floor, so I had to find a way to do it without damaging the carpet.”
She hit upon the idea of sticking materials onto a backing, and kept on experimenting even after the project was over. Today, she estimates that she has used between 40 to 50 different materials to create her signature mixed-media rangoli.
Creating a Work of Art
Vijaya prepares the materials for her contemporary rangoli herself. “[For example], if I am using coloured rice or sago, I have to dye them myself as they are originally white. It takes about eight to ten hours to mix the colours, dry the pieces, and check that they aren’t sticking to each other. Sometimes, to make it look nice, I add glitter,” she said.
Working with a new material requires several weeks of preparation. Before using it in a project, Vijaya will test it under different conditions to see how well it holds up under bad weather. “I put it in the sun for one month, put it in water for a month, to see how it turns out,” she said. Using weatherproof materials allows her to create rangoli that can be exhibited for months outdoors in Singapore’s tropical climate, such as a project that she had facilitated for the Gardens by the Bay in 2017. The finished work, which was exhibited for the few months between the Mid-Autumn Festival and Diwali, comprised about 1,500 individual rangoli created by 30 voluntary welfare organisations, and was so large that it had to be exhibited across several walkways.
A small design (about four feet by four feet) takes Vijaya only about ten to fifteen minutes to complete, given her decades of experience. By contrast, her Guinness World Record-setting rangoli measured a whopping 2,756 square feet and took her around seven hours to complete.
“I started at about 7.00 am, and finished the whole hall at about 2.00 pm,” she recalled. “I’m very happy about it, it was very memorable and a very, very magical moment.”
A photo of Vijaya creating her Guinness Word Record-setting rangoli at the Whampoa Community Centre in 2003. Photo courtesy of Vijaya Mohan
Asked if she had found the feat challenging, she quipped, “It was just very hot and sweaty! That’s all. I didn’t focus on anything else, my mind and energy were just entirely focused on creating the biggest one.” Amazingly, Vijaya claimed not to have planned the design in advance. “I didn’t really plan it or anything. All the designs just came to me, like…magic.”
The finished rangoli took up the entire floor of the event hall at Whampoa Community Centre, and was so big that no photos were able to capture the art piece in its entirety. “Back then, we didn’t have drones… the best we could do was get a ladder and climb up as high as we could. The best photo we could take still cut off the corners.”
Bringing Rangoli to the Masses
In the last few years, Vijaya has turned her attention to carrying out large-scale community art projects, involving around 1,000 participants at a time. She tries to do at least three of these a year; in 2017, besides her project for the Gardens by the Bay, she organised an exhibition at the Visual Arts Centre, which involved 30 voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs). The exhibition, Rangoli Puzzle Dazzle, brought Singaporeans from all walks of life together to create puzzle pieces, decorated with traditional Indian patterns, which could then be fitted together to form larger works.
Another one of her passions involves using “found” or repurposed materials in her creations. “Singapore is a fast-moving country, here people always want something new, something different, something beautiful. So I try to find things which no one has done before. When I taught in the U.S., I didn’t carry any materials with me. I used things I could find there – tree bark, sawdust, animal feed, old CDs, whatever’s available. I just coloured it and used it.” There’s a poetic symmetry to her approach – taking old, discarded materials and transforming them into new works of art – especially given how traditional rangoli are famously ephemeral.
One of Vijaya’s mixed-media rangoli, which she created for a workshop she ran in Nebraska, USA, in 2016. It used a variety of materials, including sawdust, seeds, coloured sand, cotton buds, forks, spoons, and old CDs. Photo courtesy of Vijaya Mohan
Looking to the Future
Vijaya’s calendar continues to be packed. At the time of the interview, she was preparing for a large community project to be exhibited in Little India. She is even thinking about going back to school for a doctoral degree,and hopes to start a teacher training programme for rangoli art in the future, so that more people can become involved and spread this art form to others.
Although she has faced some challenges in her practice, such as getting sceptics to view rangoli as a legitimate art form in its own right, she is pleased with how the Singaporean public has taken to her beloved art.
“With the multi-racial, multi-cultural engagement here, I definitely feel rangoli will be preserved by society. I don’t think it will vanish. It is a traditional art, but everyone can do it, and I’m happy to teach anyone who’s interested and want to learn.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign