When kolams went West…

GROUNDED IN ARTChantal Jumel draws a kolam  

Every Marghazhi, around day break, if you happen to walk down the lanes of Mylapore, you might meet a middle-aged woman with a vermilion bindi, plaited hair, nose ring — and a camera. Meet Chantal Jumel, a French national, kolam researcher and writer who has taken kolam art to the West through workshops across the world and catchy videos on the Internet.

Apparently, there has been an enormous interest in kolams among Europeans and Americans of late. Says Jumel, “They wish to learn to draw kolams the way many in India learn calligraphy — as a hobby. For many of us outside India, the charm of kolams lies in its impermanence. In an era when people are out seeking permanence and being accumulative about art, kolam is an absolute anti-thesis; its frailty is its strength.”

Jumel is the author of Kolam, Kalam, Peintures rituelles éphémères de l’Inde du Sud (South Indian auspicious thresholds and ritual designs). She came to India in 1982, supported by scholarships from the ICCR, the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and other agencies to learn batik art, but soon was drawn to Kathakali, kalam (Kerala’s version of kolam) and Tamil Nadu’s kolams.

Rich place for kolams

Since then, Jumel has never missed a visit to Chennai around the month of Marghazhi to do research on kolams and soak in the December music season. She likes to spend those two months in Mylapore, which is “such a rich catchment area for kolams”.

Jumel considers Kolams to be perhaps the most ancient of graphic art forms of the world, and connected to the Tamil akshara. And because the kolam is a break-of-dawn art, Jumel sees it as a visual chant or prayer renewed every day, like the ‘Suprabhatam’ hymn. She also sees in kolams geometric metaphors of Hindu philosophy, like cycles of creation and destruction, and considers them to be a great way to introduce Indian gods, motifs and the culture to outsiders.

“There are ground art forms in other parts of the world such as the flower carpet in Brittany and East Germany, the sun paintings of the Navajo Indians, the Mandana designs of Rajasthan, etc. But none of them come close to the intricate and evolved graphic art of kolams,” Jumel says.

Right now, she is looking for an Indian publisher for her second book, which looks at myths, personal stories and other facets behind kolams.

To watch Jumel’s videos and read her impressions on kolam art, log on to http://