As the sun prepares to visit this part of the world, a few of its rays have jumped ahead, trying to take a peak at our front entrance. While most of the city is either asleep, or busy getting ready to take on the day’s work, my mother opens the door and thoroughly cleans the floor with water. She then opens a small box and picks up a pinch of the white powder that it contains.
She rolls the powder between her thumb and index finger and makes a series of dots. They are perfectly arranged in a symmetrical pattern – drawn with pin-point accuracy. She picks up more powder and with a steady hand, draws several even lines – some connecting the dots, others, encircling them.
Ever since I can remember, my mother has performed this fascinating ritual, every single day, without fail.
Earlier, the only source of obtaining the kolam podi*, was relatives who visited us. Our trips to Chennai would be incomplete without buying the white stone powder, which she used for making the designs. Now the powder is available more readily. Kolams are not common in Delhi. Here, elaborate ‘rangolis‘** are made with colourful powders and flowers, that too only on Diwali, or special occasions. Some other migrants like us make the kolams with a more long lasting wet ‘paint’ made using rice flour. Others use ready-made stickers.
Visitors often ignore the kolam at the entrance and sometimes step over them. Some mischief makers deliberately destroy them. And on several occasions, the sweeper sweeps them away. It infuriates my mother… “Kolams are swept away only when the family is in mourning… Wiping it away is a sin”, she would shout. But nothing has ever deterred my mother from starting afresh the next morning.
In Chennai, though, kolams are found everywhere – at the entrance of every house, temples, and even public buildings. Friday belongs to Devi, and so, the kolams are extra special on these days. On festive occasions, the red stone comes out of the shelf. The stone is dipped in a little water and the kolam is painted with a deep red colour.
Celebrations like marriages present a much larger canvas for the ladies. Rice flour kolams are prepared the night before the auspicious event, and, covering large areas, they are grander than what one can imagine. That they will be hidden beneath the holy flame, does not matter to the artists.
As the years have rolled by, my mother’s kolams have evolved. They are no longer limited to the strict geometrical patterns. Nor are the materials restricted to the traditional ones. The kolams are now more abstract, and created spontaneously. On special occasions, she adds more colour – something that she has adopted from the North Indian rangolis. There are times when she is unable to make it early in the morning, but even today, she does not allow anyone to step out of the house before the kolam is drawn. And we don’t mind – the entire process takes just a few minutes – the years of practice have made it second nature to her.
It is this art form, and my mother’s interpretations and designs, that inspired me to create something of my own. Based on the traditional paisley motif – the ‘aam‘, or the ‘mangai‘***, it is a tribute to the millions of women who practice traditional art forms as part of their daily lives. It is a tribute to the art form that encourages everybody to become an artist.
But above all, it is a tribute to my mother – who expresses her creativity and skill through patterns on the floor every single day, only to sweep it away the next morning.
* * *
* Podi – powder
** Rangoli – Hindi term designs made on the floor.
*** aam – Hindi for mango
mangai – Tamil for unripe mango