Kolam is a household art form practised in South India. It is not the same as the North Indian rangoli which is more of a festive occasion icon.

Kolams are created everyday by the lady of the house and are an important ritual to start the day. Traditionally nobody leaves the house till the porch has been cleaned and the kolam laid out at the doorstep. The kolam signifies a welcome to the Goddess of wealth and also anybody else who comes to the doorstep. A subtextual purpose is to feed mice and other small animals in the vicinity. Suffice to say that in many places, few traces of the kolam remain at the end of the day. It is worship and welcome along with providing for smaller beings.

Kolams are made of finely powdered rice and laid out by spilling it from between the index finger and the thumb. The most common kolams have a basic framework of dots and lines curling around them in various loops and rounded designs. The challenge of a kolam is that it must be drawn in one unending line stroke.

The more elaborate kolams are usually reserved for festive occasions and religious ceremonies. Some of them do include colour, geometric patterns and even images of gods, flowers, birds, animals and diyas. Some designs also have special significance to dates and occasions. But the most recognizable (to a South-Indian) designs are the basic dots-with-doodle ones.

I’ve been fascinated by this art form for many years and I learnt it (as all good heritage practices are), from my mother. I started with laying borders, then progressed to simple 16-dot designs and upwards till I was finally elevated to the honour of laying the mahakolam on religious occasions. I tend to be more ambitious than my mother, gunning for more complex designs each time. But she’s much more skilled than I am and her fingers (even stiff with arthritis) manage to lay perfect lines where I spill out shades and strokes of varying thickness. Practice does make perfect with a craft.

There’s not much to tell with the actual technique on this project. I used the thinnest brush I could find. In fact, it was an old brush that had stiffened with earlier, unwashed paint. It suited my purpose perfectly since I needed a stiff surface to guide the paint in a clean, even line. If you’re trying this for the first time, the key is to count the dots in each line, start at any tip and just follow the line. Practice on paper first. I still do that.

I’m rather proud of this one. It actually took just 15 minutes but each one of intense concentration. The design is a first for me – I’ve never laid a kolam with pointed peaks before. One one hand, the technique itself was easier since I am much handier with a paintbrush than I am with powder in my fingers. On the other hand, the surface area was limited and an already intricate design as this one shrunk into that space made it much more complicated.

If you look closely, you’ll notice the paint is not even across the design. But I’m deliberately not touching it up to retain the authentic feel. Real life kolams are not evenly laid out since the powder never falls exactly the same way all through.

This is my kolam, the fine art of welcome.

* Cross-posted to Divadom.


If you liked this post, also see:

Other Indian designs at Desert Dancers and Kathakali

11 thoughts on “Ideart: Kolam”
    1. @alice-in-wonder: Try it and see! Kolams are much easier to paint than make in the traditional way. All you need is a steady hand, the thinner the brush, the steadier the hand. But you’re right about it not being as visible as a kolam on the tee. The tee was a bodyfit when it was new and I realised after painting that it was too high up (though it would be at the right place on a normal tee). It stretched out horizontally as I wore it. Thankfully the tee has stretched out a bit as well after that.

  1. I have been reading your blog for about 6 years now. Over the years, I find that your writing style has matured so much. And I notice this esp. because I haven’t read your blog in a while (not intentionally, just didn’t read any blog) Kudos.

    1. @Brad: Thank you, dear A.E. Writing reflects the person’s evolution, doesn’t it? 6 years is a long time. You’ve been with me and my blog longer than anybody else I know.

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