The newest festival on the Melbourne literary calendar, presented by Melbourne Writers Festival, is JLF Melbourne (Jaipur Literature Festival at Melbourne) and it took place over two days in Federation Square, on 11–12 February, 2017.
In India, it is considered auspicious to decorate households and public places during festivals. One of the ways this is done is by creating Rangolis, ornate floor art patterns made from paint, powder, rice, pulses or flowers. I had seen this kind of art when I lived in Bangladesh as a child.
On the program for JLF Melbourne was an Interactive Rangoli session. What better way to spend a wet Melbourne morning than in creative, interactive meditation? I decided to visit to see what Rangolis and literature had in common.
“Lentils are friendly – the Miss Congeniality of the bean world.” Laurie Colwin
I arrived just before 11.30am and the pattern was already drawn on carpet, specially laid near the entrance of the Fed Square Atrium. The initial placement of red lentils seemed to draw out introductions and friendly welcomes among the workers and I was swiftly set to work on creating petals around a central tri-coloured circle. I noted the capacity for a circle to admit an unlimited amount of workers to the fold.
Jaya Sharma, former executive producer of SBS Radio’s Hindi program and creative head of Celebrate India Inc., was the artist leading festival volunteers and keen members of the public in the careful placement of lentils, beans and peas to mark this exciting new celebration of South Asian and Australian literature.
“They sowed the duller vegetables first, and a pleasant feeling of righteous fatigue stole over them as they addressed themselves to the peas.” EM Forster
Before long, more participants had joined and we had moved to yellow split-pea petals, the resulting flower shape providing a vivid and textured emblem on the grey-black carpet.
“Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.” Nursery Rhyme
Several children and young people had joined in and we added the green split peas to the outside of the yellow ones, evoking the recipe of dried pease pudding. Jaya had told me that when the Rangoli is dismantled later, the pulses would go to making cheap Food for Life meals. We added more red lentils and a border of kidney beans.
“Red beans and ricely yours,” Louis Armstrong signed his letters
The next stage was to add 39 teardrop shapes in three colours around the circle, but at this point I was keen to hear some writers discussing ‘The Untrod Path: Writing Travel’, so I excused myself and trod the short path with many others to the Deakin Edge theatre to listen to Sunil Badami with his guests Catherine Anderson, Namita Gokhale and Mishi Saran. It was a beautiful session with the discussion and readings creating rich and colourful textured ideas in my mind, just as that lentil image did on the carpet.
“Beans have a soul.” Pythagoras
When I got back, after an hour, I could not believe the progress – a ring of black-eyed beans encircled the carefully placed teardrops. A series of cut-out paisley shapes were partially filled with the tri-colours again, and more than a dozen souls were patiently pouring the little coloured rounds, spreading and filling the traditional mango leaf shape.
“One can nourish others through loving service as well as through food itself.” Miriam Kasin Hospodar, Heaven’s Banquet
I had a brief chat to some of the volunteers and asked them what drew them here. Fatema, a Masters student in Aboriginal literature at Monash University said she always likes helping out at writers festivals. Tiffany, studying public relations at RMIT had previously worked as an intern at Jaipur Literature Festival. Fatema was holding a ‘people counter’ and the number was already well over 600, maybe pointing to the warm welcome that creativity and literature extend. Other volunteers mingled with interested members of the public, coaxing them to sit and participate in this creation.
“Atithi Devo Bhave – Honour the Guest as God.” Taittifiya Upanishad
Jaya told me later that Rangolis are fashioned after and from items from the natural world such as flowers and leaves. Often these symbols of welcome and celebration are placed on the threshold in people’s homes when welcoming guests to weddings or in public spaces on other auspicious occasions such as the annual Hindu festival, Diwali (Festival of Lights). ‘Guests are treated like Gods in India,’ Jaya said. It is considered a great honour and privilege to show others the love and reverence you would show God.
After the main shape was complete, all that remained was for the JLF emblem to be added. A fitting example of the cooperative nature of the event provided a bookend to my experience. When Jaya was forming the beans, peas and lentils into the crowning peacock shape (national bird of India and insignia of JLF), instead of whipping out her phone to find an image, Tiffany sat down and the image was copied from her Festival t-shirt.
An interactive experience welcoming participants to a new festival was a perfect way to replicate the colour and spirit of JLF in Melbourne. Close to a thousand people were welcomed at the installation, and I learnt a lot about the spiritual nourishment of group creativity, literature and the warm welcome extended by a Rangoli.
Bronwen Whyatt is a freelance writer who blogs about travel, history and philosophy. She is currently working on a travel memoir about her 800 kilometre walk through the south of France in 2015. Follow her at bronwhy.wordpress.com.
Watch a timelapse of the Rangoli being created at JLF Melbourne.