I cannot recall when I first noticed the kolams of Madras. Of course, I always knew that they were an important aspect of South Indian aesthetic tradition, but when did I really start noticing the kind of intricacies, effort and preparation that surrounded the making of a kolam? It could’ve been during a heritage walk in Mylapore, an area in Madras synonymous with eclectic paradigms of architecture, historical enclaves and vibrant, indigenous houses with complex kolams decorating their entrances. It could’ve also been at home, as I observed my mother make tidy notes while she practised kolam patterns in her notebook from YouTube tutorials. A kolam is many things; an elegant art form, a daily ritual, a mathematical sequence and a representation of the ‘ideal’ Tamil woman. Kolams are decorative geometrical patterns that adorn the entrances of households, and places of worship; it is a line drawing of curves and loops around a regular grid of points. Historically, mentions of kolams can be found in Sangam literature, wherein women used kolams, as they continue to do today, to decorate thresholds. Research scholar Ramaa Narayanan has translated these images from ancient writings to mean ‘curious drawings’. Variations of these so-called curious drawings exist all over India; rangolis from Gujarat, alpanas from West Bengal, jhotis from Orissa, mandanas from Rajasthan and muggus from Andhra Pradesh, to name a few!
What makes these patterns curious? Why is this expressive art form significant to Tamil culture? For me, it all started with a festival-specific tradition; every year, during the harvest festival of Pongal, my neighbours and I would watch my mother go about cleansing the entrance of our apartment, pick up a specially prepared white kolam powder using her forefinger, and then layer it all across the ground to make a large design, that my friends and I would try to amateurishly replicate on the floor of the second entrance to our flat. I realised quite earlier on, that this ritual involved rather high levels of concentration, calculation and a pinch of mathematical thinking. But more than anything, since kolams are only constrained by broad rules, these designs offer scope for detailing, the creativity of the highest order and great amounts of patience, of course. Most designs chosen by women use foundations of the shape of pullis or dots to form squares, triangles or rectangles. Based on these simple shapes, lines are traced across the pullis to form symmetrical, geometric patterns of flowers, deities, fruits, instruments, animals, chariots, and what not, depending on purpose, intention and symbolic value. Fascinating research has been conducted by a certain Dr. S. Narayanan, who demonstrated with theory and examples, the connection between the beauty of Tamil kolams with the elegance of the well-known Fibonacci Numbers. (Narayanan, 2007)
If you ever choose to visit Madras, do come during the Mylapore Kolam festival. The event spans over 4 days, 12 venues, 300 artisans and thousands of spectators who witness the splendour of kolam art and soak in its charm. This carnival of sorts consists of kolam-making in the areas surrounding the famed Sri Kapaleeshwarar Temple; crowds gather to watch women skillfully cover the roads of Mylapore with age-less, precious motifs. These women have that comforting look about them, clad in silk saris of vibrant yellows, pretty pinks and bright blues, hair knotted into a single braid or a tight bun. This fiesta got me thinking about the human instinct to enhance, decorate and embellish our physical surroundings, whether it's through grand gestures of architectural marvels or in this case, dotted grids that come together to form simple ornamentation. This need of ours is enthralling; the psychology and sciences that are seeped in ancient traditions like kolam-making prove that the purpose of kolams lies in more than just decoration. There are numerous elements that go into the human experience of physical space, and they can all have a significant impact on the way that we relate to our immediate environment. Kolam-making is also rhythmic in the sense that the process of making new ones and erasing older ones is a daily occurrence in most Tamil homes. This not only demonstrates how continuity and innovation can exist simultaneously but also teaches us that the cycle of life itself is transitory and impermanent, much like kolams.
Now, we certainly can’t talk about kolams without talking about the women who’ve mastered them. Kolams at the threshold of homes and festivals such as Deepavali, Pongal and even Christmas, are normally drawn by women, as you may have conjured by now. However, what’s interesting is that, when there is a need to replicate these exact same kolams inside the sanctum sanctorum of a temple that holds the deities we worship, solely men who are either hired to do the job or the priests themselves, perform this duty. Chances are, these same men would not draw kolams if required at home and these women would not be permitted to draw kolams in the sanctum sanctorum. While kolam-making is most definitely a practice which carries significant heritage and importance, one cannot deny that it contributes to holding women within the domain of the private, while men continue to occupy public spheres. In fact, a young, Tamil woman’s character is judged by analysing the kolams she makes. If the pattern is elaborate and displays strong spatial thinking, it is said that she is patient, if it is perfectly symmetrical, she is said to have a steady hand and by extension, mind. (Kumari, 2018) If the kolam is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and done tidily, she is said to possess diligence. Even in today’s day and age, it is rumoured that landlords in Chennai ask their female tenants if they are well-versed in the art of kolam before they decide whether or not to lease out their houses to them.
Despite all this judgment built on sexist notions, kolams are central to the identity of quintessential Tamil women, and it is captivating, how these women have used kolams to their own advantage. For example, larger designs usually conjured up for grand functions like weddings and inaugurations, require the labour of many women. This requires a community effort and harbours a feeling of togetherness amongst these women, who come together to form eccentric floor art. It gives them a chance to spend time with each other, and most importantly, open up to one another since kolams are a time-consuming commitment. (Chowkhani, 2018) In a conversation with my mother, I also learned that given the numerical knowledge required to calculate the number of pullis to make a design, practising the art also gave her a chance to excel in mental math and speedy calculations. She even tells me that kolams were used as a device for communication in the olden times, since women weren’t allowed access to the degree of education that men were, artistic expression was used as a temporary alternative. This, according to my mother, helped many women gain a stronger chokehold on their creative, imaginative capabilities, in terms of painting, singing, dancing, jewellery-making, pottery and more. In today’s world, vis-à-vis globalisation, this phenomenon translates into employment for women; in an interview with two Tamil women who teach kolam-making at a cultural centre in Pondicherry, Dr. Ketaki Chowkhani gathers insights on kolam-making as an independent profession and how it opened up avenues towards gaining financial liberation. An architect based in Madras, Thirupurasundari Sevvel organises workshops for children with autism, people with restricted limb movement and three to six-year-olds; according to her, drawing kolams can have soothing effects on one’s mind and the simple process of making kolam batter, placing dots and forming patterns is proven to be therapeutic. (Majumdar, 2020) Kolams cherish a small but motivated market that comprises young children trying to grasp math using practical concepts, married women looking to sharpen their skills and foreign nationals looking to get a taste of local artistic practices.
Earlier on in this essay, I explored how kolam-making propagates gender stereotypes and even goes to the extent of preventing women from moving into the public domain. But, even within the community of women practitioners of kolams, caste remains another layer left untangled. Caste-based discrimination seeps through Hindu rituals like kolam-making, largely because the custom itself stems from an idea of separating the pure from the impure. The ordeal of kolam-making is considered auspicious and hence needed to be orchestrated by a so-called ‘pure’ Hindu woman, in order to prevent ‘contamination’. Kolams were also considered a Brahmin formality, an affair undertaken to keep upper-class women engaged and energized since it involves quite a chunk of physical exertion. (Sreeraj, 2018) Thankfully, in today’s gentrified society, kolams have evolved into an elaborate, bewildering subject of art from that of a merely religious, subtly discriminating ritual. Although I may not have grasped the techniques and flair that go into successfully making a kolam that is appealing to the eyes, I have jotted it down on my list of lessons to learn from my mother. Through this essay, I hope you understand the significance of kolams in Tamil culture, but above all, I hope it inspires you towards attempting the art yourself!
About the Author:
Neeraja Srinivasan is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. Her work has been published by the Museum of Material Memory, The Remnant Archive, and Madras Inherited, amongst others. To Neeraja, writing is an instrument that she uses to quietly sit and examine the hearts and minds of those around her; a love language of sorts. You can find her musings on Instagram at @neeruslists.
Chowkhani, Ketaki. “Kolam and the Making of Tamil Femininity.” Sahapedia, July 3, 2018. https://www.sahapedia.org/kolam-and-the-making-of-tamil-femininity.
Kumari, Anni. “Significance of Kolam in Tamil Culture.” Sahapedia, July 3, 2018. https://www.sahapedia.org/significance-of-kolam-tamil-culture.
Majumdar, Meghna. “Exploring Centuries of Kolams.” The Hindu, January 16, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/exploring-centuries-of-indias-traditional-kolams/article30573492.ece.
Narayanan, S. “Fibonacci Kolams.” Prof. Naranan's Fibonacci Kolams. Vindhiya, 2007. https://vindhiya.com/Naranan/Fibonacci-Kolams/.
Sreeraj, TK. “Did You Know That Rangoli Has a Casteist History?” InUth, November 6, 2018. https://www.inuth.com/news/did-you-know-that-rangoli-has-a-casteist-history/.
Originally published in the Brown History Newsletter.