The family and friends of Lalitha Sankar keep her love for the kolam alive at the Meenakshi temple. This year, they are creating a single kolam with one-lakh dots in the prakaram

It’s time for the evening puja. The temple bell rings out and the devotees make a beeline to the Mukurini Vinayagar shrine. Unmindful of the buzzing crowd, around 30 women are engrossed with paint brushes in hand, squatting on the floor, their eyes trained on the pattern they are creating on the floor. In addition to those ornate stone pillars, stucco murals and floral frescos, the outer prakaram of Swami Sannathi at the Meenakshi temple, now boasts of another work of art – an intricate kolam drawn in white and red paint that runs all along the length of the prakaram like a serpent.

“It is a single kolam with one-lakh dots,” says Leela Venkatraman. She swishes the brush effortlessly and suddenly two-dozen dots are joined, resulting in a beautiful design. “This is one of the basic shapes that is repeated,” she explains. The speciality of the kolam is that the one lakh dots are connected with a single line with no break in-between.

The same kolam was drawn in the temple before 35 years. Leela fondly remembers her late friend Lalitha Sankar who initiated the group of women into learning and reviving the art of Kolam. Laitha’s daughters-in-law Shenba and Vinodhini come from Chennai every year to take part in the activity. “Our mom-in-law used to sponsor the whole event. We consider it a kaingaryam and preserve the family heritage by continuing the work,” says Shenba. “Under her guidance, we have drawn kolams in the temples of Tirupati, Shringeri, Melmaruvathur and Palani.”

Lalitha and Leela learnt the art from S.V. Thambirasu who came down from Coimbatore in 1979. He had done a detailed study on kolams for two-decades and had invented thousands of patterns and shapes, recalls Leela. What started as a casual class for a handful of homemakers in the backyard of a Chokkikulam bungalow became a legacy. Eighty-four-year-old Soundari Ammal remembers: “It was here in the Meenakshi temple that Thambirasu sir made us draw one lakh kolams for the first time during Thirukarthikai. Since then, we have been doing it every year for various festivals. This particular kolam is based on the seven basic shapes which Thambirasu named after the seven swaras.”

The basic pattern is formed by connecting two dots placed in three rows. The set of six dots is connected in seven different ways and then the various permutation and combinations they form a number of other composite shapes. “We have planned the kolam with 12 square modules each of 75X75 dots (5625 dots) representing the 12 zodiac signs. Four of the squares will come at the four corners of the prakaram and two more squares will be drawn on every side,” explains Leela, who briefs the women before they start drawing. The women use a pattern cut out on paper to place the dots equidistant from each other. Freshers draw lines with a chalk piece on which it is painted afterwards.

The kolam consumes 15 litres of white and seven litres of red paint and takes over a week to complete. Every year, the core group consisting of the original students of Thambirasu master gather friends and relatives for the activity. “They do it for free. Most of the participants are from Sholavandan, our native place. We provide them with food and other necessities,” says Shenba. Aravind Sankar, Lalitha Sankar’s son plans to start a trust in his mother’s name to take pulli kolam to a different level. “Pulli Kolam is both art and science. It involves mathematics and is an amazing part of our tradition,” he says. “Even several men learnt kolam from Thambirasu. I want to preserve the knowledge and technique by taking it to the next generation.”