Monday, September 21, 2009

Illu & Rangoli - A Very Rare Form of Art That Finally Became Extinct

People who haven't seen the Illumination and the Rangoli competition on Diwali in IIT Kharagpur have absolutely no idea what's it about. Though lately it has been covered a bit in some national media, still it remains an almost unknown facade of IIT Kharagpur, which is unique not only to the rest of world, but also to all the other IITs. It's an excellent example of a mammoth team work, unparalleled intricate project planning & management - accurate to the minutest level, timely delivery of the highest quality with more than 6 sigma precision (it never failed ever) and finally a very high quality of art that you would see no where else in the world.

First let be try to explain the magnanimity of the event. Rangoli is a well known form of art very popular in most parts of India. It's an art with various powdered colors (used in Indian festivals like Diwali and Holi) known as gulal and also some other colored materials like tumeric or haldi powder. In most houses in North India the women folk create colorful Rangoli during festivals. So from that point of view it's not something that's unique. But what's indeed unique is the size. Generally the common rooms of the hostels were used to create these huge Rangolis which used to be at least 20'x20' or even more. As you can see in the above picture, it's not possible to capture a full Rangoli in a single frame of a picture unless you break the walls of the rooms and tale a snap from 100ft. above.

Next let me explain the most unique thing - that's the illumination or more commonly known as Illu in the KGP lingo. The above picture is just a portion of a lighted facade of an Illu of one of the hostels. The entire front elevation of all the hostels used to be lighted like what you can see in the picture. The interesting thing here is that the complete lighting was done with earthen lamps - holding a small quantity of oil which can burn a small piece of cloth dipped in it only for a few minutes. Huge structures, called chatai, stitched out of flattened pieces of bamboo - sized at least 20'x20' - were put up against the walls of the hostels covering the complete front elevations. The three storied hostel buildings stretching some 100 or 200 ft were completely covered with these chatais. Depending on the actual size, at least some dozens of chatais were required to cover the walls for each hostel. Chalks were used to draw marks on each of the chatais such that when all these chatais were put up in the correct order a complete sketch was visible from a distance. The earthen lamps were then tied to the chatais along the chalk-marks, which formed the outlines of the sketch. When all the lamps were all lit together then the sketch appeared on the chatais. From a distance they looked like huge bill boards. That's what we used to call Illu. The sketches used to be generally chosen from Indian mythologies, mainly Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Now let's come to the monumental task required to put up the Illu and the Rangoli. It required serious planning and meticulous execution. I don't think I would ever get to see such levels of project planning and execution ever in my life. The corporates need to take lessons of leadership and team work from this. The entire event required a hierarchical team with an over all project manager, team-leads for various teams, a very detailed project planning with task breakdown to the minutest levels, regular tracking of the project for 2 weeks and finally a fully motivated team of few hundred residents of each hostel working almost round the clock without any grievance and grudge. The over all project manager used to be the president or the secretary for Socio Cultural activities of the hall. You can see this post as the CEO of a company. Apart from him, all the other team leads were selected solely based on their artistic skills. Like during the last two years of my stay in RK Hall of Residence, Pushpen used to be the unanimous choice to lead the sketches and Rangoli because he was the best painter in our hall. There were other guys also with good aptitude for art, but still there was never any confusion or politics in selecting Pushpen as the GM in charge of Rangoli. Most companies fail because they choose the wrong person - mostly due to legacy or internal politics. But Illu and Rangoli never failed.

Next comes the ingenuity required to draw the sketches for Rangoli and Illu. Off course the sketches were drawn first on paper and then Pushpen used to blow it up using a very simple technique that had been passed to the juniors for years by the seniors. Pushpen used to first create a miniature of the complete front facade of the hostel on a paper where 1 cm used to represent 10ft. In this scale a chatai of size 20'x20' was a small square of 2cm by 2cm in his paper. Once the miniature sketch was complete on the paper, each chatai got its portion defined. Pushpen used to enumerate each chatai based on its coordinates in his paper and assigned the other artistically inclined people for each chatai. Pushpen had the complete right to choose his team based on the skills he felt were required to mark the outlines of the sketches on the chatais with chalk. This is again something most corporates miss now-a-days and finally land up in big mess.

Each chatai owner used to first draw his portion on a paper with a larger scale, say 1cm representing now 1ft. As each chatai used to be 20'x20' in size he could fit his sketch on a paper sized 20cm by 20cm. This helped him to blow up the sketch on the chatai very accurately. Pushpen used to keep a track of the progress on each chatai. I still wonder how meticulously the guys used to blow up the sketches that, when all 100 chatais were stitched together, nothing looked out of proportion.

The chalk marks on the chatais were ready a few days before Diwali. The next major task was to put those up against the walls. Enough safety measures were taken to avoid any accident in putting up chatais as high as 30 ft. I haven't heard of any accident during my four years of stay. Once the chatais were put up the earthen lamps were tied along the chalk marks.

The climax was the few minutes before the troupe of judges came for inspection. As the lamps would burn only for 5 minutes in the normal scenario, they had to be lit only when the judges came. We had a team of people giving latest information about the coordinates of the judges. When the judges were just 1-2 minutes from our hostel we started the task of lighting the lamps - the task that required the maximum coordination and involvement. Around 20000 lamps had to be lit in 1 or 2 minutes of time by some 150-200 people. This meant each person lighting 100 lamps in less than 2 minutes - that's at the rate of almost 1 lamp a second. Here also we used a very simple tactic that had been handed over by the seniors for years. Each person, with 100 lamps to light, used to first light 50 alternate lamps in the first minute so that even if he failed to light the remaining 50 still the portion of the outline of the sketch assigned to him would be lit - even though some what sparsely - by alternate lamps. In the second minute he would come back and light the remaining alternate lamps. I don't think there can be any better example of planning for a contingency or disaster management. Those were the days before any of us went to management schools. But still if I look back I find that we used to follow everything that any successful project should follow. Perhaps it's true that management is just common sense!!

It's just fascinating to even think of the scenario where an entire sketch of 200'x30' comes up to light in just 2 minutes of time. The satisfaction was immense and the competition a very fiercely fought one. Even the girls used to put up equal effort.

I've graduated in 96, more than 13 years. But still if I've to mention a single thing about IIT KGP that stands out it's undoubtedly the Illu and the Rangoli. More than the high quality of art involved it taught us the best lessons of team work, obeying the orders of the team lead and completing a project on time. Though nothing was maintained on a MS Project Planner, still each of us knew precisely our tasks. Not a single moment was wasted. Not a single order was contested. We had supreme faith on Pushpen about his abilities. Such a faith came only from the credibility that he had shown in the previous years. We never fought for power, never wasted time in useless discussions.

I wish we saw the same thing in our corporate lives!!

Sadly... this tradition of Illu and Rangoli has come to an end. 2007 was the last time that KGP saw the Illu. We heard that the participation had dwindled down a lot gradually. I feel this had to happen sometime. Even ten years back KGP was in secluded part of the world - it took at least 30 minutes on a bicycle (the only mode of transport other than the rickshaw) from the railway station. Once you're in KGP, we'd nothing else of the outside world. All our entertainment and fun and frolic were within KGP. Even internet connections were things of luxury and were available only in the labs. But with time, every room in the hostel had internet connection - which opened up unlimited entertainment within the four walls of your room. Also I'm sure the seclusion would have ended in the last few years. The very tradition of Illu and Rangoli which used to be our life line became an obligation in later times. Professional competition also increased fiercely. The two weeks spent on the preparation were gradually seen as sheer wastage of time and resources. People would have rather enjoyed spending that time in some academic preparations. What-so-ever be the actual reason it's indeed a sad end to an art that never existed elsewhere and will never exist anywhere else.

Reference and source of pictures


Anandaroop said...

Very nice and nostalgic! It's indeed sad that Illu was discontinued after 2007. However based on my recent conversation with one of the current KGPians, I understand that Illu will be back this year (2009) :-)

Common Hindu said...

Hello Blogger Friend,

Your excellent post has been back-linked in

- a blog for Daily Posts, News, Views Compilation by a Common Hindu
- Hindu Online.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Illu is back in 2009. But I regret to say the participation is far too low.