An Artist Practices An Ancient Indian Folk Tradition
On a beautiful Friday morning, after a night of violent thunderstorms, I arrived at the Bhakti Center on 1st Avenue to find Mangala Buhler-Rosealready on her hands and knees preparing the sidewalk for her newest mandana. The cement was clean from the rain but the ghosts of last week’s designs were still visible.
Mangala is an artist whose work is inspired by the Bhakti tradition brought to America by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1965. The Center houses a temple, a yoga studio, and a newly reopened café with the intention of uplifting people through music, dance, asana, prayer and food.
This is the perfect place to do mandana, called rangoli in Rajasthan the area of India from which she is most inspired, explains Mangala. Today she is working with non-toxic paint and water to create the symbols on the sidewalks of Manhattan.
“This is ancient art uses yogic and tantric imagery, symbols and motifs. In some parts of India, this art is traditionally done every morning in front of the home to greet the day. In others, mandana is done for rites of passage, festivals, and other special occasions,” she explains. “And tomorrow we will be celebrating the appearance of the goddesss Radharani so I wanted to offer my design to the goddess.”
In India, floor designs vary with mediums including rice, rice flour, flowers, turmeric, vermillion, sand and more, are very colorful, reflecting that country’s heritage. But, Mangala is particularly inspired by the tradition from Rajasthan where they use a white liquid made from calcium hydroxide and water like whitewash. For the New York City streets, she prefers to use a mix of rice flour and water and, in some circumstances, non-toxic washable white paint with water, making a striking contrast on the sidewalk.
The art form fosters calm reflection. Before she begins any design, Mangala cleans the area. “The cleaning process clears out my thoughts, plans, and activities and makes way for my meditation. Then, I take a few silent moments to envision some basic themes in line with my intention, begin the design, and allow it to flow. Although I have a loose template in mind, I allow the design to unfold as it will.”
Many of the symbols used in the designs are infused with intention, history and meaning. Paglyas, for example, refer to footprints, like the ones that Mangala places in the design she is working on today, and are used to invoke and declare divine presence. Triangles, trikonas, are used to symbolize strength, stability, like a mountain and when placed with another triangle, satkona, as in the Star of David, represent a balance of energies.
“This is a tradition that is passed down from one generation to the next. I teach this art to children in the city and they are proof that is it not too difficult to do. Plus, the art faces threat of extinction so I feel it’s important to preserve in creative ways.”
With the sounds of the city all around – the ambulances, the buses, the clanging of empty kegs from the bar next door. People from all walks of life stop to ask what she is doing – a mom who just dropped her daughter off at school, a scientist studying the spread of epidemics, and a man who asked if Mangala would decorate him. This is New York City after all.
“It is my way of giving form to experience. In mandana art, we find symbolism representing life in this world and beyond, representing the individual and the collective, the earthly and the divine. My hope is that my small contribution serves as a reminder of divine beauty and presence in things we might otherwise view as mundane. And, for me, watching designs unfold and come together parallels experiences of yoga, of divine union.”
When she is finished working, Mangala surprises me with three oval cookies, frosted in white, each decorated with unique mandanas made out of chocolate. Cookies that are not only too gorgeous to eat but vegan too!
Mangala will be creating her next big design on Saturday November 2nd from 1 to 2pm in honor of Diwali, the festival of light, which will be celebrated on Sunday. To confirm and to check other upcoming dates, click here.
--Lisa Dawn Angerame