An avid student of kolam, Chantal Jumel found that the pictorial ritual tradition combines aesthetics with philosophy.

Freelancer, researcher and writer, who is specialising in Indian visual art, Chantal Jumel’s discovery of India has been through art, specifically the floor art of Kerala’s ‘Kalam Ezhuthu’ and Tamil Nadu’s Kolam.

A graduate of Sorbonne University, Chantal’s book, Kalam and Kolam, on South Indian ritual painting, delves deep into the origins and myth, the sensory, aesthetic ritual and philosophical frames of these floor art forms. And she can draw a mean pulli-kolam too!

Chantal is the recipient of grants from ICCR, the French Embassy and Societe Civil for Multimedia Expressions, which has enabled her to not only learn Mohiniyattam and Kathakali in Kerala but also write two books on floor art and make a film.

She has lectured, conducted workshops and created kolams at many prestigious venues in France. Chantal Jumel has lived in Mylapore since 2010 amidst the rich living tradition of kolam and continues to be an avid student of the art form: drawing, documenting and photographing this pictorial ritual tradition, which according to her connects her to the Hindu world view and 25 million women of Tamil Nadu who draw kolams every day. Excerpts from her interview.

What attracted you to the symbolic world of kolam?

There were so many little touches. Amar Chitra Kathas were sold down the street where I grew up in France and as a teenager I read its Tales and Legends of India, which was a gift from my mother. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and John Renoir’s very beautiful film, The River, which opens with the shot of three very beautiful Bengali women doing the alpana, - perhaps all this had a subconscious impact! I came to Kerala in 1980 to learn Mohiniyattam and while dancing in the temples, came across kalam ezhuthu. I learnt the art, which like a kolam is drawn with fingers and thumb. Alongside, I learnt the basics of kolam from a Tamil lady in Kerala. I had been fascinated by the calligraphic beauty of kolams done in the lanes leading to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple and also at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. When I came to Mylapore to stay, I literally entered the world of kolams.

Apart from aesthetics, what is the significance of a kolam to you?

If you value the gesture as part of a ritual the kolam is significant. I believe that a home without a kolam does not shine! I’ve seen, documented, photographed and even learnt to draw so many kolams: on the threshold, in the kitchen and puja room, different kolams for different days and different communities. An old lady once told me that the pullis and the cikkis- the wavy lines which go around the dots - are purush and prakriti and the repetitive act of joining them every morning is like renewing yourself every day. It is like being immersed in the here and the now. And have you observed how a women stands at right angles while making a kolam, in the process exercising unknown muscles. A kolam is not mere decoration but encompasses a whole philosophy.

Who taught you the art of drawing kolam?

There are so many Tamil ladies who taught me both the basics and the intricacies and to whom I am deeply indebted. I went into an Iyer puja room and saw the lady make a kolam with two birds and a swastika to fend off separation. And a beautiful Hanuman represented by a mountain with a tail. I saw hridaya and aishwarya kolams, gopuram-shaped kolams, in exquisite shapes of twisted ribbons and so many ‘pulli and cikka’ kolams. I learnt by observing kolams featuring the hamsa, elephant, agni, kubera etc. Pongal kolams I found were rich in imagery as were the Christmas ones. Janaki Gopalan taught me double lined kolams, Vaishnavite kolams and other intricate patterns. Alas, what takes them 15 minutes to do takes me a full hour.

Your impressions of Mylapore and kolams during Margazhi.

The streets are full of kolams. Women, including my friend Lakshmi, get up at 4 a.m. to make beautiful and huge kolams covering the entire width of the lane. By 5.30 a.m., they have all but vanished with trampling of human and animal feet, speeding cars and other vehicles. But they do create some fleeting moments of Margazhi magic!

Like other traditional crafts is the kolam also dying? If so, what can be done to nurture it?

I have seen and studied kolams for the past 25 years. Kolams inside the home seem to be flourishing, but shrinking public spaces do not seem to hold much future for ‘outside kolams’. Though in small towns and villages, ‘public kolams’ are still a way of life. I went to a small weavers’ village near Kanchipuram and saw a profusion of calligraphy-like kolams in the outside space. Kolam competitions such as those organised by the annual Mylapore Festival are a wonderful way of taking the art forward. Kolam making could be taught in schools and at design institutes. Today, ethno-mathematics or teaching maths through traditional means is gaining ground worldwide.

Aren’t cikka kolams, where wavy lines go around dots, a facet of mathematics ?

A thought to ponder on…