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Monday, 3 October 2011

Community crafting: How to create a Rangoli

Rangoli in a traditional Indian art form that is absolutely beautiful. It is temporary floor art where intricate, geometric designs are drawn on the ground with chalk, and then filled in with colourful flour. The results are spectacular but of course planning is essential and the application process is painstaking!
This year as part of the annual Big Draw campaign the newly refurbished and re-opened Brixton Windmill had an open day for the public to explore the windmill and take part in a creative challenge to help create a rangoli floor design. For those of you who don't know Brixton, it's about as urban as you can get in London! It's an area built up with shops, a market, a popular music venue, independent cinema and a vibrant, ethnic community, most of whom are probably unaware that a windmill exists on their doorstep. It's not surprising as the architectural wonder is hidden away inside a tiny park and obscured by a tree so it's pretty much a secret.
Although rangoli is traditionally applied directly to the ground we couldn't do that in a public park so I started by taping a roll of sugar paper to the floor as a base and then inside, created a main surface for our rangoli. I didn't measure it but it was the width of three roll of paper and a good couple of metres in length.
While I prepared the rangoli, Lisa the Education Officer at the windmill got to work dying the flour using a mixture of edible food colouring including liquid, paste and powder forms. She did this by blending it using her fingers as this enables the flour to stay lump free. If you stir it with a spoon you'll get an uneven distribution, though it's worth wearing gloves as your fingers will stain.
I created paper templates of simple geometric shapes, based on the windmill and drew around them to get the design started. I kept the chalk lines thick so that they would show up after they had been filled, in traditional rangli these lines are often filled in again at the end so the borders are neat.
Then it was time to get the event started!
Lisa's rainbow of flours were placed inside cups with a spoon. Participants chose their shade and then got to work.
We also had a huge sack of  wheat and lentils.
First to get stuck in were two friends. One of their dads used to visit the windmill when he was a boy, and this was the first time he had showed it to his son. Both of them took to it immediately and were extremely neat! One of the worries of rangoli is that someone will mess it up but actually by working together you realise no one is out to do that! There was only two 'mishaps' but these were discreetly swept up with a dust pan and brush and the chalk design remained underneath.
If you look up descriptions of how to do rangoli, you'll discover it says to use your fingers to sprinkle the flour in place. Lisa and I tested this and it took forever, using a small teaspoon is much better! We also used small rectangles of card to keep the flour within the chalk boundaries just by pushing it into place.
Before we knew it we had helping hands around the whole design.
The initial drawing was based on elements of the windmill, taking inspiration from shapes and motifs such as this millstone.
But as the event was part of The Big Draw we encouraged participants to draw their own motifs to help grow the rangoli and most of them took to the challenge. One gentleman created a magnificent multicoloured wheat emblem:
While another woman freehand drew her own design which blended in so naturally. She had not done any rangoli before but she had a definate knack for it!
Some people took direct inspiration from the windmill, such as this large cog.
Which looked great when recreated with lentils and wheat.
Some areas of the design were filled in completely but as the session only lasted two hours we weren't able to finish the whole pattern. It grew much quicker than we expected and would only have taken another hour or two with our helpers to get a really authentic finish.
Knowing our installation was temporary and would be coming to and end at the close of the session was sad but we couldn't have kept it in the park...just think what a feast the local rodents would have had! So as the visitors left we peeled up the sides and said good bye to the masterpiece, which far surpassed both our expectations.
Rangoli is a great group/community activity. I've heard of rangoli horror stories where the floor (and carpets!) have ended up a total mess with seeds and beans everywhere. The trick to managing it is to have the sheet underneath, keep a dustpan and brush to hand and by supervising and encouraging participants so they feel properly involved and appreciated. 
Test it out first too.
I did some sampling at home beforehand and found that 'wet rangoli' where you make a flour paste didn't work particularly well. It was heavy, gloopy and not very user friendly. I also tried dying rice but it was far too messy. Dry flour seems to work the best - particularly wholemeal.
The Friends of Windmill Gardens give guided tours of the windmill on specific dates throughout the year, which need to be booked in advance. To visit, check out the main website.The Big Draw continues throughout October with events all over the UK. There's activities for everyone (even people who claim they can't draw!) Check out the site for more information and if anyone reading this does decide to create their own rangoli, make sure you send me the results, I'd love to see how you got on!

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