History & Culture

Exploring centuries of kolams

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Whether it is for mathematical research or beautifying homes, kolams have been in the picture for a long time. We trace its significance

Pulli, padi, chikku. Dots, lines, curves. Occasionally, a full-fledged peacock etched freehand. Kolams are a part and parcel of everyday life. But they have also come up frequently during historian Meenakshi Devaraj’s research on Sangam literature. Throughout the large body of work, extending over about six centuries, kolams have remained the bastion of women.

Devaraj, has found only two exceptions so far: ghosts in a 12th Century poem who made decorative patterns out of pearl dust, and a ritual specific to Karnataka where the onus of kolams is on men.

Kolaputhagam that came in 1899 mentions about the panchavarnam, aka five main colors used in kolam: white, black, red, yellow and green.” In practice however, white rice flour with a bit of red on festive occasions is used.

For architect Thirupurasundari Sevvel, kolams make for interesting study not only in social, but also in spatial terms. For her, the basic essence behind this artistic ritual is the human instinct to “beautify your space of living with what you have around you. We have been doing this since prehistoric times, when cavemen would draw patterns with mud in an effort to decorate.” She adds, “There are four ways to classify a kolam: spatial, by occasion, by region and by family.”

Exploring centuries of kolams

By family, she means motifs that have been handed down generations. Spatially, she says, patterns differ based on what part of the house they are etched on; kolams at entrances are different from motifs drawn in kitchens, or intricate patterns in prayer rooms. In terms of region, Devaraj says that kolams in Chettinad stand out in design because they portray family homes, with members depicted in neat rows and a roof for shelter. Other regions give emphasis to objects that have significance in their daily lives, from everyday kitchen spices to jewellery.

By tradition, Sevvel points out how wedding and temple festival kolams are far more social than kolams drawn at home. “It can take about seven or eight people to make a wedding kolam. It becomes a community activity. Different people draw different parts, and yet it comes out intricate and uniform.”

Another way of looking at kolams is by their purpose. In Sevvel’s words, most kolams today play the role of welcome mats, albeit with intricate art and centuries of patterns to back them up. Kolams have also been used in mathematical research, with their hexagons, dotted grids, hidden motifs and loops.

Exploring centuries of kolams

For Sevvel, however, kolams play a third role: therapy. She has been conducting kolam workshops for children with autism, people with restricted limb movement and three to six-year-olds. “It is soothing,” says Sevvel, “We use rice paste on my red oxide floor since it is easier to wipe off, and the simple effort of making the batter, placing dots and connecting them into patterns seems to help.” So much so, that the trio’s workshop has now entered its 10th edition.

This Pongal, grand and intricate kolams will embellish doorways, courtyards and streets across the State. When the festive season recedes, however, the art will continue to live on.

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Printable version | Jan 30, 2020 12:04:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/exploring-centuries-of-indias-traditional-kolams/article30573492.ece

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