My thoughts scamper a decade back as I wander the lanes of Arapalayam Crossroad, Shanmugapillai Street and nearby areas to capture the mood of women while they decorate their thresholds on the eve of Deepavali.
Like most women of Madurai, I too love drawing colourful kolams, but those leisurely days seem lost to me.
Around 11 p.m., women splash water on the street, covering large rectangular or square spaces. Another splash, and the women have converted their streetscape into their canvas. They quickly measure with their eyes and then they are ready to lay out the carefully planned design.
A few women flip through recycled notebooks, once full of the children’s maths problems and now a treasure trove of kolams. The notebooks have been studied all month long, and they are frayed and soft with use.
“I selected this pattern some 15 days ago,” says Meenakshi, a teacher. “In fact, I practised in rough papers and selected the colours too.”
“I have almost half-a-dozen notes with at least 1000 designs. But every year, I make a new note as I often misplace my old notebooks,” says Mangayarkarasi.
And then cometh the colour mixing ceremony. This is the forte of children, and they go about it in a thoroughly professional way.
Nobody makes a strenuous effort to learn to draw kolams. They start helping their mothers and grandmothers, then they experiment with dots and lines, and soon they learn to design their own kolams. They pick up ideas from Tamil magazines that have kolam corners and organise kolam competitions.
It is a serene art, but while the women are shaping the patterns they are also multitasking. They look ahead and select the colours for the next step, and they gossip about a woman who had bought a costly sari that had an outdated design. Some show off the saris, jewellery and accessories triumphantly brought home after hours of bargaining.
Saris, jewellery and accessories dominate the discussion, and even the new nighties are not left out.
Some of it is bought with black money, i.e., money saved without the husband’s knowledge from daily expenses.
And of course, the secondary part of their gossip is filled with the feud that rages between wife, husband and in-laws in buying dress materials.
Two nimble-footed little girls zigzag their way into the courtyards and a grandma mumbles, “Hey, here come the little spies of so and so. Now they will tell their mothers what we are doing.”
And soon, children and women spread their towels to hide their patterns from the eyes of the cute little spies. Ah, what a competitive world!
Like magic, the dots are joined with lines and resolved into elaborate birds, butterflies, and flowers.
As the outlines are coloured in, the topics change to kolams of neighbours, husbands and the dishes they plan to prepare on Deepavali day.
“I cannot afford to miss the kolam drawing session,” says Jayanthi, who has been drawing kolams since her childhood. For the past three years, her 13-year-old daughter Kamalai has joined her in this art.
“The colour of kolam evokes a sense of meditation. It is an experience by itself,” says Parimala, social activist and member of a women’s club.
The women are self-centred and competitive when they are drawing their own kolams, yearning for appreciation and eager to show that their kolam is unique among the lot drawn on the street.But once they’ve finished they become selfless and help their friends and neighbours in completing their kolams.
“Without any mathematical instruments, women draw kolams that are always symmetrical. It is not only an art but also an exercise for women,” sermonises Dhanalakshmi, a grandma five times over.
She says, “For centuries women have been waking up in the wee hours to draw kolam, a pass for Goddess Lakshmi to bring in prosperity to the home and the family.”
Only women and girls draw these designs on the threshold. Men and boys stay away or at best watch the intricate designs take shape – after all, drawing kolam is women’s duty!
As the night advances, high-pitched shrieks and giggles dissolve into silence as the women work to make their designs prominent.
The distant sound of crackers and gaggle of screaming children with sparklers at the end of the courtyard do not distract them.
The dotted and coloured peacock spreads its iridescent feathers and a thousand eyes glint in the early morning sun, with a welcome note, ‘Happy Deepavali’ and ‘Deepavali Nal vazhthukal.’
As I slowly make my way amidst the little crowd of women and into the dawn, I realise that it is this simple happiness of joining the dots that is missing in my harried life. It is 5.30 a.m. I splatter water on the small courtyard of my house and draw a kolam all by my smiling self.