Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Kolam: Story of the Painted Prayers

By Dhivya Subramanian

Each day before the break of dawn, millions of women in south India say silent prayers, as they sprinkle their hearth with rice flour to make kolams. These designs or rather kolams announce the arrival of each new day and are a symbol of welcome to Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of weath) to dwell in the home they represent. These painted prayers are formed using a pattern of dots that are connected with lines or are looped to form intricate patterns and designs. This ritual is repeated every morning, Indian women wash their threshold with water and wax it with cow dung, then with deft and nimble fingers they craft out designs to adorn their doorsteps. Each mornings new patterns replaces the fading pattern of yesterday.

Kolam is as old as civilization is. It dates back to the Indus valley civilization. In the Mahabharata, the gopis (milkmaids) drew kolams to forget the pain that they experienced when their beloved Krishna is away. At a much later date, Kolam-drawing is listed as one of the 64 forms of art in Vatsyayana's Kamasutra.

Just like with many of our traditions this one too has a story to tell. Art Historians believe Kolams originated from people who lived on the seashore, who invariably found a design in the arrangements of stars, which remained a guiding factor when they ventured into the sea. The prime stars noted by the shore dwellers were Orion, Acula and Leo representing Lord Shiva, Mayan and Goddess Sakthi. The celestial designs of stars were brought to terrestrial thresholds of homes in the form of magical diagrams called `kolam,'

Some say the dots in the kolam represent the men and lines women. It depicts the lives of women who weave their life around their menfolk. Kolams are drawn in such a way no dots are left unconnected or hanging and folklore says this closed patterns prevents evil from entering the homes.

The kolam or their more contemporary counterpart the rangoli as it is known in the north, has come to mean many thinks in more recent times. It is a link between the private realm and vast challenging world outside. A few lines and dots or the lack of them speaks in abundance about a particular household or village to a passer by.

A kolam also represents the symbiotic relation a man shares with other species, small birds and insects don’t have to go far hunting for food, the rice flour feeds them well. Kolams can be seen in all its grandeur during festivities, ceremonies and auspicious occasions. Most of them can be divided into families, one such being the Brahma’s knot that has a distinctive pattern of looping.

Today kolam is an ornamental motif that adorns the threshold and the rice flour is being replaced by ugly vinyl stickers. This hand-me down art from mother to daughter is loosing its relevance in the more cosmopolitan context. However, efforts are being made to keep this tradition from becoming a thing of the past, the Mylapore temple festival is one such attempt. A walk down old temple streets of Tanjavur, Chidambaram or Mylapore will give you a whiff of this ancient art that tells you the story of the stars.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Filter Kaapi Trails: A Pilgrimage

By Dhivya Subramanian

Ask any South Indian he’ll swear by this frothy delight. Filter Coffee in most part of Tamil nadu is a social institution, and a force to reckon with. The day here almost does not start without one steaming hot glass of freshly brewed filter coffee. It is the epitome of the famous Tamil hospitality and hence it is only sacrosanct to treat our guest to this a filter kaapi. I discovered the strong decoction brewing in the filter has a story just as tantalizing as its aroma.

What tam brams consider theirs was originally introduced by Baba Buden, a revered muslim holy man from India, in the 16th century. During his pilgrimage to Mecca he chanced upon the wonders of coffee and smuggled a few beans wrapped around his belly to Mysore.

The coffee was popluarised during the British raj and there were many stories around it. Some argued it was European origin, it must necessarily be unclean; others said it might be alcoholic. In any case coffee was expensive and a privilege of the rich, a tumbler full cost as much as half an anna, while butter-milk was served free in many places. Only the most daring tried it but the conversation the new drink brewed got everyone in its clutches and one has never really recovered from it.

It is always a wonder to know how the coffee made it to the filter of the tam bram household. Around 1860 coffee cultivation gained momentum for it held the promise of export but a few bags managed to pave its path into the local market and received extensive support from the railways and the local stall vendors. Coffee slowly transitioned from road side stalls to households where it found aficionados who roasted their own beans - peaberry preferably - and devised their own unique gadgets and utensils for roasting, grinding, brewing and serving that came to be known as the filter. In the process, they elevated filter coffee into an art form and created a coffee culture that practically defines a community.

The filter coffee wave brought with it a teaming economy - the Leo coffee was set up in 1910, followed by Narasu’s coffee in 1919. MTR set up shop at Lalbagh Fort Road, Bangalore, and out-of-home coffee got a new dimension, the magical kaapi, along with idli, vada, dosa and sambhar, found yet another entourage of devotees.

A fresh aroma wafted in the 1990’s, with a whole new trend in coffee retailing. Café Coffee Days, Baritas and Qwikys mushroomed all over the country catering to young adult brewing out exotic coffee variants and dishing out mouth watering snacks to go along.

However, our very own filter kaapi hasn’t lost it sheen. Traditional coffee drinkers still regard instant coffee with an unmasked contempt for there can be nothing to replace this sheer ambrosia. And even as we speak the new tam bram yuppie somewhere between all his globe trotting would happily trade their starbucks for the good old filter coffee, just the way grandma would have brewed it for him back home in madras.