KOLAM, when hands are drawing
By Chantal Jumel
The divine is invoked everywhere in India, even on the ground through drawing or painting with rice paste or vegetable and mineral based coloured powders. In Tamil-Nadu, these drawings are called kolam and bear testimony to the richness of Indian graphical patrimony as well as to the extraordinary feminine creativity. Auspiciousness is not only contained within temple walls; mountains are the abode of gods, and animals and birds their vehicles. Trees, plants, and flowers are means not only to worship them but also to symbolise their vegetal incarnations.
Tamil-Nadu, essentially rural, celebrates the sun, the cattle, and the snakes. This culture owns “totemic” trees and addresses god in the temple as if he was a king, dressing him with great pomp, pampering and feeding him, and in the evening, putting him and his queen to sleep with entertaining renditions of amorous verses. It is a society where every village offers appeasing rituals to the territory guardians, and a culture still deeply imbued with the worship of heroes to whom villagers of the past venerated by erecting memorial stones. It remains a region where the roads overlap the circuits of ancient temples where poets described human emotions according to the country’s five landscapes: hills, desert trays, forests, the seaside, and fertile plains.
It is there in the Southern most part of the Indian peninsula that just before sunrise, women of all communities and beliefs draw on the ground. On the earthen lanes of a village or on the carefully swept pavements of a city, female hands create with the tips of their fingers, patterns that invite the divine to protect the house and the family. With the ground as their canvas, hands as the instrument, rice paste or rice flour and coloured powders as paint, the kolam draws the viewer into a world of divine symbols and mystical attributes. The designs vary in accordance with current events or the Hindu calendar. Their silhouettes change depending on the day, sometimes figurative, sometimes sinuous, they become linear on Tuesdays and Fridays.
It is an anonymous feminine world of powder images, which border on calligraphy, geometrical diagrams, and fine embroidery. Behind every drawing, we read the story of a woman, of a mother and her daughter, and the memory of a culture through time. The kolam is a tradition passed down the generations from mother to daughter, but each household keeps a notebook where the most difficult patterns are recorded. The girls learn by watching, and later they will create new patterns with dexterity and speed.
Because the kolam blossoms at daybreak and celebrates the Earth and the link that human beings maintain with her, I always compared it with a visual chant that resonates silently in the hearts of the passers-by like the painted prayer renewed every day, not unlike the Suprabhatam, Sanskrit hymns chanted early in the morning to awaken the gods. The graphic recurrences similar to the priest’s incantations, punctuates the passing of time. By repeating motifs or lines, we try at all costs to suspend the present moment. The hand tunes the breath on the delicate weft of dust which becomes a pattern and immobilizes time.
An early hour stroll through the Tamil streets captivates the ears much before the eyes can distinguish the surrounding world. Unnoticed, objects welcome daybreak and suggest their presence by assuming a rhythmic sound form. A faint whispering of the straw brooms and the splashing of water succeed the rustles of night-insects and the croaking of crows.
In the early hours, women come out of their homes with a powder-filled container. They call out to one another and one can feel the glances which gauge the spot where they will draw. Bodies bend over at right angles; the wrist induces a slow pace to the fingers, which drop down at regular intervals, discreet rice flour or quartz powder marks called pulli in Tamil. It is on this perfectly symmetrical dotted canvas that gradually, flowers, birds, divinities, or geometrical diagrams come to life.
Other women stretch out long parallel lines in a fluid and broad movement, almost as if brushing the ground. The swaying of the arms and of the whole body, the clear and wavy gesture freezes the lines that never seem to be willing to unite with the earth. When they finally land on the floor which has become powerful by the radiance of their whiteness, they elude by their modest playfulness the malevolent forces and protect the walker as well as the house members.
To me, the diagrams seem like geometric metaphors used to illustrate the idea of time in Hinduism, a periodical cycle where creation and destruction alternates rhythm of the universe and human life. How not to be fascinated by these geometrical arabesques? They are intimately linked to a life style and a culture which has always exalted the divine by drawing beauty out of disorder. The graphical exuberance akin to Tamil writing is disarming as we stroll through the streets of a city or the narrow lanes of villages at dawn.
If there is music in these lines, then it is similarly joyful and sensual. It glides under the steps of early passers-by, under the wheels of cyclists or handcarts pullers or still under those of small vans carrying away tiny grains of the rice dust as many unveiled intentions. The surrounding noise gets louder and louder as morning breaks, throbbing trucks, piercing rickshaw horns, bicycle bell ringing, sputtering mopeds, insistent calls of chai sellers, the day has begun and the busy anthill is a whirl of activity.
Today, the cultural as well as the economic context for the kolam has changed in Tamil-Nadu. Women are working so the house is not anymore the only place for this morning ritual. Competitions take place in schools, in public halls or on the street like the Mylapore contest in Chennai. Welfare schemes use it as a tool to focus on social harmony and to promote awareness of environmental and health issues. Overseas, within expatriate Indian Diasporas, kolam explores new areas, reshaping itself according to new socio-cultural background.
The journey from a world to another world, from one culture to another has surely expanded its significance but hopefully the essential will remain through its intrinsic values, which are to welcome, to embellish, to pay tribute, to celebrate, and to attract prosperity.
Chantal Jumel is a graduate from the Sorbonne University, and the author of “Kolam, Kalam, Peintures rituelles éphémères de l’Inde du Sud” (South Indian auspicious thresholds and ritual designs). Jumel initially went to South India to learn the traditional dance drama art form of Kathakali from the renowned maestro Padmashri Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair in Kerala. While there she was fascinated with kolam. Through the Indo-French Cultural Exchange Program she researched and took lessons in kolam from local women, and kalam techniques from Sri Parameswara Kurup, a ritual painter attached to the prestigious temple of Ambalapuzha in Kerala. The world of ephemeral paintings and its symbolism as well as Indian philosophy constitute the background of her artistic research. She teaches, gives demonstrations and workshops at art galleries, conferences, and festivals globally.
By Nalini Sadagopan
Memories drifted to an authentic scene of the ritualistic art, when my little niece pointed to the intricate aishwarya kolam on a beautiful kancheevaram sari in the wardrobe as we were getting ready for a wedding ceremony. The deep soothing toll of the temple bells blended with the rooster’s crow passes through the village at the crack of dawn, as women are carefully casting final touches on their beautiful kolams on a Margazhi morning. Plop, plop she first splashes the water emulsified with cow dung; followed by scratch, scratch sweeps with her broom stick – made from dried coconut leaf stems – as the lady of the house prepares her muddy front yard for laying down the beautiful kolam. Within minutes, she creates a dark green background that offers both an antiseptic guard for her house and a great canvas for her artistic display. She draws her kolam swiftly using straight lines, curves and ripples by simply pinching and laying the rice flour with her thumb and pointer without touching the floor but gently dropping the fine powder from less than a quarter of an inch above the ground. She bends, scoots and squats as she weaves her magic in her front yard unknowingly performing her early morning whole body workout. She draws her kolam with rice flour, which serves as an early morning food offering for the tiniest of the living beings such as insects and ants around, demonstrating the altruistic nature of her family.
Kolam, the age old Tamil traditional art form, can be as simple as drawing straight lines on your door step to those that can fill up your front yard. While the day to day kolam can be small, it is typically medium sized on Fridays along with some chemman (red paste) to add color. The month of Margazhi (mid Dec to mid Jan) is when the pomp and splendor is show cased of this beautiful art, where kolams that can fill up the whole front yard, about 6-8 feet long and wide, are crafted with stiff competition between neighbors. In fact, the gala starts from the night before when the ground gets prepared and the kolam is drawn – typically puLLi (dot) kolams are drawn in Margazhi, as they showcase a highly complex pattern. The next morning, touch-ups such as borders or colors top off the kolam display. Bright yellow colored pumpkin flowers held by a small ball of cow dung go in the middle adding specialty to the Margazhi kolams. Contests are run to award the best kolam of the street in some towns. In larger cities, where independent homes are becoming less common, folks living in the flats can’t help but be satisfied with a smaller kolam at their door step or even better use sticker kolam that come ready-made on colorful plastic sheets. Although it is traditional to use rice flour, for a brighter white color and for finer drawing purposes, powder made from chalk is also used. Some homes use chalk sticks to draw out a kolam that would stay intact at their doorstep when traveling away for a few days in a row. Kolam when absent in front of a house signifies an inauspicious incident such as death or mourning. Hence it used to be a taboo to leave the front yard without a kolam.
Besides being a warm and welcoming decorative art piece in front of the house, kolams are also drawn at religious ceremony altars, at worship centers or puja rooms of a home, and at wedding lunches prior to laying down the platter or the banana leaf. In general, Kolam, the word which means pattern, signifies auspiciousness and adds festivity to the scene in a South Indian household. If you are interested to try a kolam in your own front yard or home, all you need is fine rice powder or a piece of chalk along with plenty of your imagination!
Nalini Sadagopan is a Houston area resident and loves writing and public speaking in her spare time. Her passion for arts, culture and heritage motivates her to volunteer time in the local community to promote these, especially among the youth. She is a chemist by training and works as a Technical Specialist for Agilent Technologies. She is married to Rishi and they are parents to Shilpa and Vishnu.