So I accidentally picked up a “good girl” habit
While people turned to adult coloring books to fight anxiety during the pandemic, I decided to go old-school. I tried my hand at drawing kolams.
If you don’t know what those are, kolams are geometrical or freestyle diagrams drawn with rice flour on the street in front of houses and also inside our puja rooms. Typically they’re drawn by women. These sprawling creative artworks are an important motif in South Indian culture.
Drawing kolams is an underrated practice. It’s mesmerizing to watch women create beautifully complex patterns with alarming ease. Meticulously demanding, visually breathtaking, this art form combines mathematics and mythology with nonchalant elegance.
It’s common knowledge that rice flour is used in order to feed ants and squirrels, thus making the kolam a metaphor for coexisting with nature. But I like to think the kolam’s significance is that it symbolizes impermanence. Usually drawn in the early morning, the kolam gets stamped on, driven over, rained on, and eaten by animals. Even if it’s pristine the next morning, the ground’s washed and a new kolam replaces it. It’s like a poor man’s Buddhist sand mandala.
Scars from childhood
Like most cool teenagers I was busy singing along to Hannah Montana or watching Friends and wanted nothing to do with kolams. There was a brief stint in my 6th grade when I began to draw simple flowers at the encouragement of my paati.
Living near a temple, the place outside my grandma’s house was a prestigious location for kolam artists to strut their stuff during temple festivals. God’s omnipresence is casually forgotten when people are vying to be in his direct line of sight.
My paati’s diabolical plan was to show me off in front of her friends by having me draw a kolam on an important day. Now you have to remember that drawing kolams is way harder than it sounds — you try dropping rice flour in a straight line while holding it between your thumb and forefinger and then we’ll talk. I was drawing flowers (with a stem and leaves — straight out of my drawing notebook) with shaky outlines and if I was in a good mood, I’d throw in a sun.
I still remember the day when my paati pushed me out into the street with zero warning and asked me to draw the kolam. At that point in time, I knew Triplicane well enough to know that there were probably a dozen 9-year-old girls who could out-kolam me. I wasn’t a glutton for embarrassment and so ..I froze. I tried to struggle. I said I’m not good enough, paati. But in her blind craze for social approval, she kept egging me on.
I can still see the group of women standing together screaming “Podu ma, chumma podu!”. It still keeps me up at night sometimes. “Epdi irundhaalum paravaala” (Just put the kolam, it doesn’t matter if it’s bad). Yeah, right! I may have been in 6th grade but I knew gossip fodder when I saw it. They’d be snickering about my kolam skills for days.
After a few nauseating minutes of me standing frozen on the street with the rice flour dabba, one of my paati’s kinder friends decided to rescue me from my suicide mission. Since that day, I’ve stayed away from kolams (understandably so) until a few months ago when I picked up the dabba on a whim.
Reading between the gender and caste lines
One of the advantages of picking up the kolam dabba so late in your life (I’m only in my 20s) is that you can approach a ritual with angles other than the strictly religious one.
When we look back at traditional practices, the unmistakable gender roles invariably stand out. The routine practice of kolams is supposed to bring discipline and the intricate drawing of lines is meant to help the practitioner focus. With endless possibilities for improvisation, kolams were also a creative outlet. Bending down to draw the kolam is a great way to stretch in the morning. I couldn’t understand why men couldn’t benefit from any of these.
Attributing auspiciousness to otherwise banal practices and the semi-deification of women in order to cement and justify the systemic patriarchy has always seemed like a lazy excuse by men who clearly didn’t want to get their hands dirty. So not only is the woman happy to draw kolams, she strives to make her arches perfect and the kolams bigger because she prides herself on her expertise — as if the diameter of her kolams directly translates to a numerical score of how good a wife she is/could be.
In his benevolent misogynistic wisdom, my dad tried to sell the idea of women needing the exercise more than men. Drawing kolams, using the urall (the modern grinder’s predecessor), fetching water from rivers, and using the ammi (the blender’s predecessor) kept women fit and healthy, he said. Women’s bodies are more complicated than men’s, he said.
I tried to explain that it was simply a ruse to justify gender roles, deny women financial freedom and extract manual labor from them — while trying to keep my blood pressure down. Men back then were hardly medical experts.
My dad countered saying that sedentary lifestyles have only contributed to conditions like PCOS in women. It’s a hormone problem pa, I say. Which can be managed by weight loss and lifestyle changes, finished my dad. I’m positive that there’s a middle ground between back-breaking manual labor and possible infertility. But the argument was over. Betrayed by my own anatomy, I sat seething in silence.
One morning when I was drawing kolams in my puja room, my maid peered in and guessed the two kolams I was going to draw even though I was only starting with the first one. When I asked her, she said people from my community typically draw only these. Wondering how this still manages to catch me by surprise, I realize that there’s a caste angle to this.
Kolam being an oral tradition whose knowledge gets passed down through mother-daughter lines and the fact that the cultural zeitgeist is leaning away from tradition, I wasn’t able to find a lot of literature about kolam practices across different communities.
In her doctoral dissertation on the Kolam practice, Anna Laine says
Among the Brahmin women I met in Chennai, there is a clear difference between the types of designs they use in comparison with women who belong to other castes. When trying to explain the issue to my non-Brahmin interpreter, an elder woman stated that ‘As you eat mutton and we are vegetarians, you make dot kolams, and we don’t.’ She further argued that it was impossible to compromise either on the right design or the right material and technique inside Brahmin temples.
When there is a family function or other festive occasion, the Brahmins who are Shaivites build an elaborate kolam around a small square, while those who are Vaishnavites draw the middle square with concave sides.
The reason behind these differences isn’t explained, and they’ve gradually broken down over the years. The knowledge is retained only by the oldest living generation who also make allowances in their pursuit of aesthetic kolams.
Chantel Jumel, a French national also chronicles the distinct practice of Chettinad families drawing kolams in the middle of the house — nadu veetu kolam, whose number of cells corresponds to the number of families in that house.
Curiously the kolams drawn outside the house have come to enjoy more freedom while the ones inside the house are more reluctant to cross caste lines. As I looked through Anna Laine’s 426-page dissertation and Chantel Jumel’s website (she’s written two books on kolams), I realized that there are social, cultural, and economic facets to this practice that are enormously fascinating and largely unknown.
Drawing new perspectives
Some look at kolams and see religion. Others look at kolams and see the potential. She threw out the religion, gave it a new spin and that’s how architect Thirupurasundari Sevval came up with kolam therapy. She says it’s a soothing exercise for autistic kids and people with restricted limb movement. She conducts workshops where they use rice paste to draw simple patterns on her red oxide floor.
Bhargavii Mani, a digital creator used kolams to get her coordination back after she suffered from a stroke and had partial memory loss. She has built a community of kolam lovers on Instagram under the handle @kolampodu which she describes as a happy project.
Over the years, the kolam has undergone a few transformations. The traditional rice flour started getting replaced by powdered limestone a few years back. It was a cheaper alternative and the younger generation liked it because it was more sparkly than rice flour and the coarse powder was easier to draw kolams with. As a result of North-Indian influences, rangoli started making an appearance in South Indian streets. During festivals, you can observe women exploiting the full use of kolam as a medium to depict scenes, put out messages, and even make political statements!
In urban areas, the daily kolams are fighting a losing battle against porch-less apartment buildings, bustling city lifestyles, the all-too-convenient sticker kolams, and the younger generation’s disillusionment with religion.
Thus my amma’s elation at my interest in kolams turned mildly sour when she realized I was looking up doctoral dissertations and newspaper articles instead of kolam designs. Oh well.
Like the kolam on the street which gets stamped on and driven over, the practice in itself is slowly fading into oblivion. With a burgeoning leftist and politically correct population, would this practice detach from religion and patriarchy to survive? Or will the kolam get blown away in the winds of time?
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Stay home, pick a new hobby, stay safe :)