On the periphery, a kolam might look like a simple traditional design drawn on the entrance of a Tamil household, but they carry a deeper connotation, kolams are interwoven with cultural and humane consciousness. My introduction to this part of the Tamil cultural identity happened in Swamimalai, a small town in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. I was intrigued by the complexity of design and the ease with which the womenfolk drew them.
Kolams of different patterns and designs teach the abstract ideas of the philosophy that propel popular culture in the state. Made with powdered rice, kolams are a symbol of well-being and a welcome sign. It is believed that a kolam is drawn to banish the evil: Mudevi, Lakshmi’s sister as per Hindu mythology. She is assumed to be a forebringer of illness, poverty, laziness, sleep and bad luck. The absence of a kolam indicates that either the household does not practise Hinduism or an inauspicious event has occurred. In that sense, the kolam can be seen as an underlying visual mapping of the auspiciousness and inauspiciousness; ritual purity and pollution, in the context of ritual space and time.
Before starting to draw a kolam, the area is thoroughly cleansed as it is considered to bring prosperity to homes and is drawn mostly while the surface is still damp for the design to hold better. An art form practised primarily by the womenfolk, kolam is equally popular in other southern Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, as well as some parts of Goa and Maharashtra. It’s drawn every day just before sunrise.
A typical kolam is a geometrical line drawing composed of curved loops, illustrated with the help of a grid pattern of dots. Over the centuries, the folklore has evolved to mandate that the lines and curves must be completed, symbolically preventing evil spirits entering the shapes and thus preventing from entering the house.
Decoration is not the only purpose of a kolam. The Tamil people avoid adding synthetic colours to the rice flour or powder because it also doubles as food for the insects. They believe, the ants would not have to walk too far for a meal. The powder also invites other small creatures including birds. It is a way to welcome other beings into one’s home and everyday life: a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence and a simple step towards creating an ecological balance, a hot topic across the world.
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A kolam design is inspired from magical motifs and abstract patterns blended with philosophic and religious concepts. Motifs may include birds, fish and other animal images that symbolise the unity of man and beast. The sun, the moon and other zodiac symbols were also used. The downward-pointing triangle represents a woman; an upward-pointing triangle represents a man. A circle represents nature while a square represents culture. A lotus represents the womb and a pentagon represents Venus and the five elements. For many, it is a matter of pride to be able to draw large patterns without lifting the hand off the floor.
“Kolams are just not an age-old tradition where women show their talent to create geometric designs with rice powder. It’s a fabric of India’s multi-dimensional culture, lifestyle, beliefs and practices. Its chemistry is so deep that even today people know kolams only very superficially,” says Steve Borgia, Chennai-based heritage conservationist and Chairman & Managing Director of INDeco Leisure Hotels.
There are numerous interpretations of the ritual, symbolic and cultural significance of kolam all over Tamil Nadu. Lakshmi, a resident of Swamimalai, says, “We draw the kolam to honour, invite, welcome, host and express gratitude to particular gods and goddesses, including Bhudevi (representing the earth), Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity), Surya (Sun god representing good health and wisdom) and Ganesha (the elephant-headed god, known as the remover of obstacles). The kolam acts as a visual device to remember and ask for forgiveness for walking, stepping and burdening the earth.”
Over the years, kolam art has become a crucial part of South India’s contemporary art scene with many artists using the patterns and motifs in various crafts.