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South Asian Art History - In Memory Of Prashant H. Fadia

Ramaa Narayanan

(Glossary: Marubu -  Heritage, Pulli - Dot,   Kodu -  line
  Maavu - flour , Podi - powder)

KOLAM - the art of floor-drawing - is integral to the Tamil Marabu , and is intimately woven into the daily lives of millions of Tamils. Pullikolam  – floor drawing based on grid of dots - is a marker of Tamil folk culture. The most discernible household art of the Tamils, it is practised mainly by women, and remarkably, is restricted to no particular economic or social class. Pullikolam art is nonhierarchical, aniconic and a-religious.

These intricate patterns of dry powder may adorn different places of the house - both within and outside. When done on the vaasal i.e the front yard of the house, it often includes parts of the street itself as in case of row - houses. That the ground may be even and smooth or irregular and crooked  is of little consequence. Twice each day – once before the break of dawn and once in the evening  - fresh cow dung is mixed in water, which is then sprinkled liberally and with alacrity, to settle the dust, readying the ground to 'fix' the kolam. The vaasal- padi [‘vaayirpadi] or threshold holds a significant place in Indian homes - and a kolam of sorts is an imperative here. Kolam drawn in front of the house brings cheer to the household, communicates welcome, announces well -being of inmates, delights the eye; it is auspicious and symbolizes the sacred and divine all at the same time. Kolam signifies prosperity and happiness - it is mangalakaram. Besides the front yard and the threshold of the house, kolams are drawn even along the steps leading to the house and spots inside the house like the puja alcove to sanctify these spaces. While mostly temporary, kolams are occasionally semi-permanent when walls of houses, granaries, wall area flanking the main entrance and bordering door frames are highlighted with symbolic patterns. Kolam drawing is thus equally a routine ritual and simplistic decoration; at a different level drawing kolam  is equally  a devotional act and  creative art.

Kolams are two-dimensional patterns comprising fascinating combinations of dots and line - sometimes of lines alone. On this basis, two broad types of kolams can be identified: kodukolam   and  pullikolam. Apart from these, novel forms like punal kolam (kolam done on water) and isai kolam (music-kolam) are well known. Kodukolams are strictly geometric designs made with sets of straight  lines often leaving a central area free except for a single dot. Kodukolams are devoid of dots and are derived from yantras and mandalas. 

Pullikolam is central to and the pulse of Tamil folk expression. Lines  interweave  around regularly spaced dots in intricate manner to create  pullikolam. In a typical pullikolam  a cell is created  for each dot. Pullikolam is  called variously as  kambikolam, pinnalkolam, muduchhukolam, chidukkukolam, and of late  chikkalkolam, the last   referring to the challenge the more complicated dot-line patterns  pose to the present day  damsels.

Pullikolam art is pattern art in white and involves freehand contouring with white powder. Majority of the common folk use powdered stone for kolam drawing; though the use of rice powder is recommended, supposedly in order that ants and small insects may consume it. The stone is known as kolakkal  and the dry powder kolama or kolamaavu . In this popular method of podikolam ,  that  the powder is white  and fine enough to  fall through the two fingers -  thumb and index fingers -  when sieved out in lines is more than enough. On the other hand, kolam may occasionally  be drawn with wet rice paste. Rice, soaked and  ground to smooth paste is further diluted with water to required consistency.  A tiny piece of linen is soaked in it, held between the thumb and two fingers. And kolam is drawn by squeezing the cloth to leave a trail of double lines simultaneously, with the cloth acting as a reservoir. The wet lines, that seem unappealing, emerge crisp and clear on drying. Smooth and flaky, the lines are brilliant in their whiteness. Since it is highly prone to smudging while drawing and wet, this type of kolam is done on a very dry floor. While this maakkolam is  preferred by certain communities for special occasions  like marriages and on auspicious days or events,   podikolam  is the order of every day for every Tamil  household.

Kolam embodies  remarkable  design  features. Design elements of true  kolam are dot, line and plane; the design dimensions are  structure and scale.  While kodukolams are characterized by austere geometric beauty arithmetical order underpins pullikolam. All kolam patterns are regular, yet dynamic; seemingly self - contained , yet with inner  tensions  caused by the elemental flow  of line or by interlocking linear shapes.  Essentially skeletal, their beauty lies in the structural order  as much  as in the quality of line. 

Dots are central to pullikolam which may further be classified into two - as ner- pullikolam  and chandu- pullikolam  based on the placement of dots. The latter is also termed idukku- pullikolam and oodu- pullikolam. The nature of  the grid of dots  determines  the character of the pattern. In the ner- pullikolam the rows of dots are aligned  straight , while in chandu-pullikolam  the dots  of every alternating  row are aligned  - meaning that  each dot correspond  to the midpoint  of any two of the previous row, placed on the  lane (chandu) as it were.

(Glossary: Marubu -  Heritage, Pulli - Dot,   Kodu -  line
  Maavu - flour , Podi - powder)

(To be continued in the next issue)

(Ramaa Narayanan retired in 2006 as Reader from Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College (Autonomous), Chennai 600 0086. e-mail: ramaanarayanan@mailcity.com, ramaa47@rediffmail.com.The author conducted workshop on pullikolam (done on paper with pencil) with commendable response to the hard ware engineers of Tata Consultancy Service as part of a programme – ‘Ambassador Corps’ in February, 2005 at Trivananthapuram )

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Selvi Chary Drawing Kolam (2001)

A large pulli kolam on paper

Dr. Ramaa Narayanan
Reader (Retd)
Dept of Fine Arts
Stella Maris College, Chennai

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