When speaking of Indian art, we mostly think about temples and palaces, with their distinctive architecture, and the multiple sculptures which illustrate the importance of spirituality in Indian daily life. But alongside to these "classical" forms of art, a compendium of feminin artistic ways of expression do exist. Significant ones are Mehendi, Flower garlands and what we will talk about today : the beautiful Kolam!
Skillfully manipulated thanks to the expertise of Indian women, rice white powder is used to draw shapes on the ground, in order to invite deities to come and visit and to repulse evil forces. These daily reproduced gestures, which are addressed to diverse deities, are called Kolam in Tamil Nadu. Just before sunrise, on freshly swept and purified sidewalks from any dust after pouring a bucket of water, female hands busy themselves. The thumb and index finger will subtly overlap each other in order to drop a white grain cascade. The latter will draw lines on doorsteps of which thickness and purpose are precisely mastered. All these lines will eventually gather in order to be shaped as flowers, birds, deities or even geometrical figures: all of these aiming at bringing luck, happiness and prosperity to those who live in the related house.
Thus, as the first light of dawn appears, these powdery mazes bring the streets to life with their own symbolical light. These drawings create protective lines destined to deities underneath foreign and familiar footsteps striding along Tamil Nadu. Kolam is a graphic art used by women from all communities and beliefs and is orally transmitted. It turns out to be an exclusively female legacy handed from mothers and grandmothers down to their daughters and grand daughters. Thus, in each Tamil house, a notebook can generally be found gathering the hardest figures to be reproduced on the ground. Dexterity and rapidity are the trump qualities in Kolam art. Added to these two faculties, the most gifted women invent new patterns themselves, which they later fill with colored powder to celebrate special days and even sometimes combine them with flowers, leaves or even lentils in some Indian areas.
But Kolam art is not unequivocal. Not only is it a mean to express one's spirituality, but it is also a way to welcome in goodwill, those who cross one's threshold. These spontaneous creations then go further than basic votive ornamentations and are a delight for the passerby's eye, as much as for their heart. Women who daily craft these kolams like to insist on the duality which characterizes this art: strength and fragility. The strength of the divine message deeply contrasts with the rice powder ephemeral print on the street ground. Besides, this fragility is tremendously valued to the extent that the gradual erasure of the kolam as the day passes by, is an indicator of the number of visits people living in the house received in a day. One's home hospitality may then be measured regarding the kolam's disintegration in front of the doorstep.
Practicing Kolam is also considered as a way to operate self-introspection in Indian culture. Indeed, it is an exercise used to bring up thoughts and awaken the inner voice: a divine part transcending time and space. The principle relays on reproducing one graphic element or a specific symbol around a central point, and above a generally square or circular basis. This figures' repetition does not illustrate a lack of imagination or renewal, but rather reveals a deliberate will to bore the mind always eager to discover and experience new things. The reiteration among patterns and bodily gesture, which is necessary to elaborate kolams, create a soundless litany similar to mantras that are whispered or rosaries that are recited, in order to emancipate one mind from the daily materiality, which could hinder any spiritual process.
Furthermore, the ground as an artistic creative place allows a deeper and particular communication with deities. Indeed, in India the ground is strongly associated to the Nurturing Mother, and to that extend it receives prayers from dancers, artists but also from millions of unknown women who daily mark their doorstep with white powder.
Even though the tradition of practicing kolam is usually orally transmitted from mothers to daughters, it turns out to be a tradition of which roots come from written sources. Indeed, Tamil people possess an abundant literature, which goes back to IIIrd of IVth century BC. If Tamil literature only evokes kolams and never really goes into details, it nevertheless testifies of the longevity of the tradition. For instance, one of the oldest known references, which is a written paper from the XVIth century, mentions a peaceful and flourishing kingdom where "tigers and cows were drinking from the same watering place, Brahmans were singing Vedas, women were decorating the streets with kolams, rain was falling and those who were hungry were satisfied".
Thus, learning how to make kolams is an important part of a young girl's education. Indeed they have to be able to realize a whole range of figures and to know which patterns and designs associate to which specific occasion. This being said, this drawing tradition does not only belong to Southern India, and we can notice the practice of Muggu, Rangoli and Alpana in other Indian areas. Although they may be historically linked, figures, procedures and meaning differ.
You are now familiar with the practice of Kolam in Tamil Nadu. If you wish to get more information or to learn how to subtly and precisely handle the famous rice powder, step over the kolam which decorates Sita's doorstep, and come experience one of our kolam classes!
To learn more about Kolam, do not hesitate to go on Chantal Jumel's website, she is a specialist in Indian visual arts and rituals!