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.

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