Vignettes from India: Kolams in Tamil Nadu

1556218_1540221679631469_3625068406065971950_oI was just twenty, in India for the first time, staying as a guest in a home in a south Indian city. I am a light sleeper and the noises of householders moving woke me long before dawn. I climbed to my feet, splashed some water on my face from the jug next to my cot, quickly changed into fresh clothes, and staggered out of my room to see what was going on. The noises were coming from just outside the house’s entrance. There in the dim dusk, the mother of the family was sprinkling water from a brass pot in her hand onto the dirt road directly in front of the door. Trading the pot for a small metal bowl, she bent straight from the waist and began to mark out a grid of dots on the damp earth with pinches of white powder. Then she began to connect the dots with sinuous, fluid lines and, as I watched, stems and leaves, flower petals and birds began to cover the ground. Finally she took several other bowls containing colored powders and quickly filled in the designs with color: purple, pink, bright red and two shades of green, transforming her entire painting into an explosion of color. I was entranced. What did this mean? Why was she doing this? As the predawn light began to open my view down the street, I saw that women, young and old, were in front of every house, all painting designs. As I walked down the street, I saw that each painting was different in form, in size, and in palette. The entire dirt street was transformed into a huge mural. As each woman finished her painting, she would walk along the road to observe the other’s women’s handiwork before re-entering her home to care for her family’s needs. Then, as the sun rose, and the day’s activities began, entire families began coming out of their houses: men on their way to work, children walking to school, women going to the market and all stepping directly across these beautiful powder paintings and scuffing them into the dust. Within a short while they had all disappeared. I was amazed.

When I returned to the house in which I was staying and questioned the family members about the meaning of this extraordinary process, I was told that new paintings were created every day in every home. They are sacred designs intended to protect the home from evil and to encourage benevolent spirits to enter it. What a phenomenal culture! This discovery engendered in me an obsession to see more. I traveled throughout this state of Tamil Nadu, arising early each morning to witness the creation of these ‘kolams’. I learned that they are freshly made daily in more than a million homes and that the women pride themselves in never repeating a design! How could that be possible? I was transfixed. 

In that year when I was just twenty, I gathered material on the subject which I wrote as a research paper for my undergraduate university. Years later I returned to Tamil Nadu to document it further and to photograph the making of kolams for my second book: Painted Prayers: Women’s Art in Village India (NY: Rizzoli, 1994). Later I featured kolam-making in a chapter of my book: Daughters of India; Art and Identity (NY: Abbeville and Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2008). I now have more than a thousand photographs of these ephemeral designs, far more than I can ever use; and yet I am still bewitched by their ingenuity. Whenever I again find myself arising in the pre-dawn Tamil light, I always walk along the streets to discover new designs and record again on film this remarkable example of human creativity. I will return there this February and can hardly wait…