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

Ramaa Narayanan

Continued from the previous issue..

Click here to read Part I.

The point - the dot is a tantric symbol – bindu. It is a symbol of  the infinite; for between two dots placed one over the other  is stretched the Infinite. It is point  where the identity of the  individual soul  is realised, as it merges with the  universal soul. It is point  where all living beings unite. Line is but a moving dot; a  traversing dot; a string of dots. Line, according to John  Layard (Labyrinth Ritual in South India : Threshold and Tattoo) has many meanings  chief of which are line current, water course,  snake ornament (tattoo) and planet Saturn. Kolam line is sutra - Thread of Life thus symbolizes continuity. The continuous line of kolam may be said to signify the cyclic process  of cosmic phenomenon on the  one hand and the very  karma  - the cyclical concept of cause – effect – cause- effect on the other. At times, kolam  is constellation sun, moon and stars as patterns. But more importantly it is ‘journey’: kolam in essence is point, line, plane, movement and Infinite.

Pullikolam is  linear, in keeping  with  the aesthetic preferences  of the land. The dots – lines relationship within pullikolam emphasizes another  important design feature. The lines may connect the dots absorbing them in the process and resulting in shape based patterns - geometric or near geometric patterns or even quasi- naturalistic forms. Alternately and often times lines traverse  - spinning around points. The lines  dancing around the dots in  wavy  manner -  plait like, river like, serpent like, woven - thread like -  in knots and weaves is alluring. Thus kolam  needs no other  design element like colour  to throw its beauty in relief. The all white patterns of velvety dots and silvery lines are truly evocative. Kambi kolam  and  Izhai kolam are two terms that deserve attention in the context of line quality. Kambi refers to ‘metal wire’ line - tenuous and  firm, while izhai cannotes ‘thread-fibre’ line -  soft and yielding . Layard   emphasises the importance of continuous lines;  for  evil spirits  ‘enter’ thorough the gaps. It is  common belief  that the continuous line  help prevent entry of evil spirits. Thus warning is against loose ended or overlapping or  ‘throwback’ lines. The significant feature  is that  the line  is cyclical either in simple circles and loops;  or winding in algorithmic complexity  it comes back to from  whence it  started. It is true that there is no beginning or end in the kolam lines. Though the lines may be drawn  in a preset  movement  continuously  to the particular count of dots  as though following a pre-ordained  path -  it is a loop after all. These computational  kolams  thus enshrines  infinity through continuous traversal of one or a series of loops.

Fundamental to kolam  aesthetics  is the simple structure of  the basic unit  with  tremendous  scope  for development and variation. Symmetry prevails over variety; rhythm over  emphasis. Though  pulli–kambi kolam looks extremely complex there is an underlying order that is arithmetical. A whole  kolam may comprise a single loop or a single kolam may be constructed of many intertwining loops.  There is invariably a basic unit  used alone as  a complete kolam; or the basic unit  is employed in various ways - two units making mirror images, four making a  square or lozenge, or many units  forming a circle, octagon and so on. The basic module is  expanded  systematically in all or any direction. The essential design properties of kolam allow for logical and methodical development of a basic design as much as combining of one or many  patterns that may possess a common denominator.
Scale  is a noteworthy  design principle of kolam. For instance, a particular pattern in chandupullikolam may be  done in a sequence of seven dots in the middle row to one  dot on either  side or  twenty one dots in the middle to one dot on either side. Drawn either big or small  each  kolam pattern  is  bewitching in itself and ‘fills' the area metaphorically, irrespective of its actual size. The kolam artist  looks around  the place and intuitively decides on the  scale and size; selects from memory the kolam for the occasion  and time. Working  by the measure of the eye and her intuitive and creative instincts she  implants the dots, draws the lines and   eye- catching kolam emerges. It may be the one she had learnt in her childhood days from her grandmother, she improvises as she draws. Thus even a simple and old pattern is presented  with  a refreshing skill and is imbued with a distinct aesthetic appeal.

Being  a folk expression, pullikolam appears freely in many types and forms though traditional patterns are treasured. The  variegated designs  range from basic  geometric  shapes to  naturalistic bells, ribbons and  bunny rabbits. Religious symbols like swastika, five or six pointed star are the most common. From the world of flora,  leaves of mango and  vilva, lotus flowers,  snake- gourd , pagarkodi (bitter-gourd creeper), as well as  mullai  pandal (jasmine arbour) are expressed as  patterns. Tulsi plant  is depicted  along with its plant holder. Parrot,  hamsa, annam, peacock as well as snakes are meaningful forms  from  fauna. Sacred objects of conch,  kalas(pot),  lamp, especially kutthu vilakku  recur. Favourite objects like  chandana  pela , panneer chombu , as well as ornaments like jhimiki , bullakku  are  fascinating as patterns.    Chariot , swing,  palanquin,  cradle and simple wooden seat – a plank  (manai) - find varied  expression .

On the one hand, the more common abstract non-subject pullikolam patterns have tremendous visual appeal. On the other,  things of nature and every objects   comprise charming patterns when translated into computational kolams; their attraction lies in certain ‘literalness’ of expression that allows easy recognition of  their forms of origin. The pulli kolams are meant to be learnt, memorized and drawn on floor on day to day basis; or / and on occasions. The design scope of this everyday art of kolam is of astounding aesthetic order, stemming from arithmetical order. In the recent times, 'literalness' has crept in as a wave of modernization. Unfortunately, a number of modern kolams are representational depictions, rather than patterns. Things of contemporary life offer endless possibilities for innovations; yet it is well to bear in mind that computational kolam is essentially a pattern art in white. Learning pullikolam and repeating them is by itself a rich experience.


kutthu vilakku -  bronze lamp of Tamil Nadu .It has a base , a stem, a wide dish shaped container and a crown
chandana  pela - a wide mouth container on a high base used for holding sandal paste for convenient use
panneer chombu- rose-water sprinkler
jhimiki - a pendant ear ornament
bullakku  - a nose ornament)


(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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One Plus Four Kolam

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Dr. Ramaa Narayanan

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