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Art rises out of rice flour

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Creative hands: Kolam artist Malathi Selvam recreates the Aayi Mandapam with rice flour. —
Creative hands: Kolam artist Malathi Selvam recreates the Aayi Mandapam with rice flour. —

Priti Narayan

Life-like portraits and scenes engraved in ‘kolams’

PUDUCHERRY: An artist needs a medium and an instrument to create a piece of art, but all that Malathi Selvam needs is rice flour. Her rangoli and kolams are not just about dots and curves and repetitive patterns filled with colour, but scenes, pictures and life-like portraits of people. In front of your eyes, she can deftly recreate the Aayi Mandapam in intricate detail on the floor with only a small photograph for inspiration, or simply conjure up in her imagination, a scene described to her, and create it on the floor, with light and shadow effects even. The highlight of her art is that she draws free-hand, without creating chalk outlines or sketches, and without making corrections.

“I am actually a self-taught artist, and I like oil painting best,” the artist proficient in murals, Tanjore paintings and oil paintings admits with a smile. “But somehow, since I am able to create as kolams, things most people aren’t, I am best known for these,” she says. It all started when Malathi was in Class 7, she created a huge kolam in school. For more than 20 years, the tradition continues, as Malathi goes back to Sharada Vidyalaya, Salem every year on Sharada Jayanthi to create a huge kolam canvas, complete with her own backdrops and props. Along the way, she turned professional, and is now called on to create kolams for many indoor events like festivals, including huge portraits of the bride and groom at weddings! “I am often asked to create portraits of the person, wearing different clothes from the one in the photograph given to me. It’s a little like using a graphics editing software,” she laughs.

Her biggest piece of kolam art so far is a 300 square feet Nataraja scene, its 24 three dimensional figures taking a total of ten hours to complete. The 3 D effects are created by making projections with wet sand, to make the scene look realistic. “Sometimes, I also use coir for a lion’s mane, cellophane paper for rain, and whatever aid is required for texture and effects. But rangoli powder is the constant feature,” she explains.

Creating a kolam isn’t as easy as it seems. “When you make big kolams, you have to start from the top of the picture, and complete it as you come down, to avoid stepping on it. This became a huge challenge when I was trying to draw a picture of Krishna peering at his own reflection. Creating the reflection from feet to the head, was quite tough, but it turned out quite well,” she smiles.

Her talent has not gone unrecognised. In 2009, Malathi was invited to participate in a study-cum-exhibition at India Habitat Centre, with artists from Sweden, to convey common messages on womanhood and discover similarities between two different art traditions – the kolam and Swedish embroidery.

She has received awards from several organisations for her work, and that only spurs her to dabble in modern art, take art classes, and constantly innovate in her kolams.


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