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The Kolam: An Aesthetic Yet Mathematical Art Form

An Introduction to Kolam

Floor art and mathematics: what’s the connection? While many folk art forms make use of geometrical patterns and motifs, the kolam takes it a step further. Read on to discover the practical applications of this ancient decorative art form.

Some of our earlier blogs talk about the floor art of Kerala (Kalamezhuthu) or Bengal (Alpona). These art forms share certain similarities as well as marked differences.

The closer two regions are, the higher the chance of overlap between their folk art and culture. The same art form can thus transform into something else when it is introduced to a new region.

Spiritual Significance of Kolam Art

Image credit: LoadProof

One similarity that most floor art forms share is that they are linked to both spirituality and aesthetic beauty. Like many other Indian floor art forms, Kolams fulfil a ritual and aesthetic purpose.

It originated in the state of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil, Kolam means form and beauty, and some of this art form’s patterns are more than 600 years old.

Women draw these designs in front of their homes at dawn, during Brahma Muhurta (the time that Brahma and all the gods descend to Earth). The Kolam beautifies the threshold of the house and functions as a gateway for positive energy to enter the home.

The patterns are believed to act as a welcome mat for the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, who is thought to visit homes that have beautifully drawn Kolams. Due to its transient nature, this art form is also symbolic of the impermanence of life.

The Kolam as a Symbol of Service

The practice involves drawing intricate patterns using rice flour or chalk directly onto the ground. The purpose is twofold: to beautify the surroundings and to invite positive energy into the home.

Similar to Alpona, women traditionally drew Kolam art with dry rice flour (kolapodi) or rice paste. Nowadays, they often mix rice powder with white stone powder. This practice is more cost effective and most insects and birds can separate the rice powder from the kolam and eat it.

The Drawing Process

First, the artist sweeps the ground and sprinkles it with water. Then they begin drawing the patterns. As the surface of the ground is still damp, the design sticks to it and stays on for longer.

The artist draws dots or pullis according to arithmetic principles and creates a matrix or grid. They use lines or padis to join these dots, and lastly, they add the curves, or chikkusor.

All Kolam artists have a basic understanding of these three elements and how to use them to create Kolams. Even a beginner can use the pulli grid to start drawing simple kolam patterns.

Kolams drawn with flowers and flower petals are called pookalam. (Image credit: Dsource)

Nowadays, artists also use synthetic colours to draw Kolams. They also use stencils and sticker sheets. During festivals and in public spaces, kolam artists prefer to use rice flour paste, or makolam over powdered rice flour due to its higher durability and staying power.

The Styles and Themes of Kolam Art

Symmetrical 3×3 kolam with 9 goddesses and a swastik form. Dyed pattern on cloth (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike the flamboyant Rangoli, the Kolam is daily and is all about precision and complexity. A kolam or muggu is a geometric line drawing composed of straight lines, curves, and loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots.

What makes this art form so intriguing is its intricate, symmetrical designs. These patterns, often passed down through generations, require a keen eye for detail and a steady hand. The most basic Kolams involve dots and lines that interconnect to create mesmerising geometric shapes and floral motifs. The result is a mesmerising display of symmetry and precision.

Kolams are often inspired by nature. From flowers and leaves to birds and animals, the art form incorporates elements from the natural world. This deep connection to the environment reflects the Indian belief in living in harmony with nature, a value that is intrinsic to the culture.

Even the kolam itself is a symbol of this harmony as it provides food to small creatures and insects.

Important Motifs of Kolam Art

A traditional kolam with kaavi borders (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some prominent Kolam motifs include astrological symbols like the sun, moon, and zodiac signs. Elements of nature, like birds and animals, serve to represent the harmony between man and nature.

Downward pointing triangles represent women, whereas upward-pointing triangles represent men. The six-pointed star, which is drawn by combining both symbols, represents the union of man and woman. Lotus flowers represent the womb, among other things.

Some modern Kolam designs for Pongal (Image credit: Abhi, Wikimedia Commons)

Motifs also differ from region to region. For example, the Chettiar community of the Chettinad region use conch shell and parrot motifs extensively. During the Pongal harvest festival, vegetables and sugarcane are popular Kolam motifs.

A water jar topped with coconut and mango leaves (kumbha) is a central motif in wedding kolams and represents abundance and fertility. Lamps are the most popular motif during Deepavali. During Krishna Jayanti, women draw tiny footprints from the entrance of the house to the Pooja room. They believe that Krishna visits each house and eats the sweets that are kept in the Pooja room.

The Contemporary Evolution of the Kolam

Women at a Kolam festival (Image credit: The Hindu)

In recent years, Kolam art has seen a resurgence in popularity, not only in India but also on the global stage.

Contemporary artists have been reimagining this traditional art form, experimenting with new materials, and incorporating it into various art mediums. Kolam is no longer confined to the ground; it has found its way onto canvases, exhibitions, and even public spaces, transcending its traditional boundaries.

As we embrace the digital age and global influences, preserving traditional art forms like Kolam becomes essential. This ancient practice serves as a bridge between the past and the present, a reminder of the enduring beauty and cultural significance of art through an inherently transient art medium.

Practical Applications

Kolam created on Ganesh Chaturthi (Image credit: Mathanki Kodavasal via Wikimedia Commons)

As you must have gathered by now, Kolam art is highly symmetrical and orderly. Designs are grouped into different families depending on certain parameters.

Their nature has attracted computer scientists who work on describing images with picture languages. These scientists have used Kolam art to further their research and developed different picture languages for each distinct Kolam family.

(Image credit: Padma Selvan via Pinterest)

Kolams are used in the field of computational anthropology as well as in the art and media fields. Kolam designs have also been used to represent complex protein structures in a simplified manner.

While birds, squirrels, and other insects feast on the Kolam, they do not have to enter the home and look for food. Thus the kolam also is an effective method of pest control.

In conclusion, Kolam floor art is a mesmerising blend of tradition, creativity, and spirituality. Its intricate patterns reflect the rich cultural heritage of South India while offering a daily reminder of the beauty and impermanence of life.

Interested in learning more about the rich meanings and cultural associations behind tribal art forms? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

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