Everyone loves mangoes – have it fresh, in pickles, chutneys, salads, shakes, juices, puddings… Even designers love them. The mango motif lends itself to endless adaptations, and can be embellished on almost everything. But the leaves of this tree often do not get the same sort of limelight.
Mango leaves are considered sacred, and are hung at the doorstep of houses on auspicious occasions. Some of the reasons, that I have heard, are warding off negative energy, keeping insects away, and for prosperity.
This past week, India celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi. Our humble mango leaves made their appearance for the pooja. Here’s my attempt to photograph them. It was my first attempt at shooting in the full manual mode, and what better subject to start with 🙂
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.
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* Podi – powder
** Rangoli – Hindi term designs made on the floor.
*** aam – Hindi for mango
mangai – Tamil for unripe mango
The city has embraced migrants for centuries, and become home to a huge variety of people. Not many can claim to belong to Delhi, yet, anyone who comes here, belongs to it. People who live here are known for their generosity. They welcome visitors with wide-open arms. This is perhaps the reason why the city has come to be known as ‘dill walon ka sheher‘*. It has embraced different cultures and has a long history – which is evident from the staggering number of monuments.
Over the recent past, its image has been that of an unsafe city. I believe this is because non-residents have taken the lovely people here for granted. But even so, it is a city that I call home. Despite its shortcomings, I love it. If I were told to move out of Delhi and live elsewhere, I would be devastated. And therein lies the problem.
For all my attachment to this city, deep down inside, a small part of me feels like I am a misfit. I need the typical South Indian cuisine, the tunes of Carnatic classical music, the sights and sounds of the intricately decorated temples. Perhaps its partly genetic, partly because its a novelty here, and partly because I do not know much about it. But mainly, because it forms a part of my own identity.
Even though I have grown up in Delhi, my childhood was dominated by stories about life in the villages. Anecdotes about hundreds of family members, whom I have never met, and probably will never know either. It used to be a small world. Everyone knew everyone else. There were so many traditions and customs that I struggled to explain to my north Indian peers. I hardly understood the local culture, and they refused to accept ours. Our native traditions and customs were more numerous and filled with elaborate explanations. I found those much more interesting than any of the local folklore. To be honest, I felt superior, and pitied my companions who did not understand.
But time and circumstances changed many things. The city of Delhi was evolving, and was beginning to accept people from all parts of the country. I began feeling alienated around family members. I felt like I didn’t belong there any more. I made Delhi my home.
The villages have nothing that belongs to us any more. The ancestral houses were either usurped or sold – I never set foot anywhere near them. We all have moved on to our own lives. But there are some traditions that we have held on to. The kolam** at the doorstep, the offering of food to deities, the keen interest in Classical music and art, the spirituality and sanctity maintained on festive occasions.
Indian philosophy demands that we move ahead – not get caught up in sentiments. And I believe I am one of the millions of migrants who belong to Delhi. But one day I hope to visit the ancestral village – to understand where my roots were – and perhaps quell the thirst for knowing myself.
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*dill walon ka sheher – loosely translates to ‘the city that belongs to large-hearted people’
** kolam – form of painting that is drawn using rice / white stone powder (full wiki article)
The summer has already set in and the heat is becoming unbearable. If its this hot in April, I fear to even think about May and June.
The past couple of days, have been a little different though.
Today, the wind is blowing hard. The sky is overcast, but there are some rays of light, which have managed to sneak past the clouds to get a glimpse of the world.
In the balcony, the plants are having a ball. For the past few weeks, they’ve gone crazy. Everyday they’ve been dressing up in their best outfits. The Nandiyavattai*, the common purple Flowers*, Hibiscuses, Loudspeaker* Lilies, and even Jasmine flowers, have come out in large numbers after a long, long time.
Today, also happens to be the Tamil New Year. Although there isn’t much we do to celebrate the new year, our mother draws a special kolam** at the entrance of the house, and prepares a special dish.
This dish has all flavours – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spice, and pungent. The dish represents life, and its ingredients, its different flavours. In life, some moments are sweet, others, bitter. We experience a wide variety of emotions. On the first day of the year, this dish is prepared to remind us, that the future will be filled with varying emotions. We must, not only prepare ourselves to face life, but also learn to enjoy its different flavours.
Puthandu vazthukal (happy new year), and a happy Baisakhi to all.
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Nandiyavattai – The Tamil name of a plant, whose name I did not know – till now. Called ‘Moonbeam’ or ‘Wax Flower’ in English, ‘Chandni’ in Hindi and ‘Tabernaemontana coronaria’ in Science.
The Common purple Flowers – Another plant whose name I found out today. Called ‘Madagascar Periwinkle’ in English, ‘Sadabahar’ in Hindi and ‘Cantharanthus roseus’ in Science.
Loudspeaker Lilies – They look like a pair of loudspeakers, hence we call them that. The internet world does not seem to recognise that name. So its just plain old lilies.
**Kolam – Patterns drawn with stone powder at the entrance of the house.