Kolams are an art form from South India used to celebrate auspicious events. When U.S. Senator Kamala Devi Harris, (D-Calif.), accepted the U.S. vice presidential nomination, millions of Americans, including me, a woman and an immigrant Indian-American, were overwhelmed and proud beyond words. Her subsequent election is not only historic for all Americans, but also an achievement on many levels that inspires girls and women the world over!
As we celebrate Kamala Harris’ inauguration this week as our first female, first South Asian-American and first African American U.S. Vice President, her heritage resonates personally for me. I take pride in the fact she is half-Tamilian (her mother Shyamala Gopalan is from Chennai, Tamilnadu).
Naturally, the very first thing on my mind was wanting to gift her one of my paintings. I chose “Braided.” This piece is from my Kolam/Connections series, which I created in response to the pandemic in Spring 2020. The work is based on an ancient South-Indian art form called kolam that perfectly represents and reflects our shared heritage. I am trying my hardest to reach her team and make this happen (Hello Harris Team, hope you’re listening!). Incidentally, in true Tamil tradition, Harris’s ancestral village Thulasendrapuram celebrated with a kolam as well post-victory on Nov. 8, 2020.
What is a Kolam?
A kolam is a math-based geometric line composition. Drawn daily as part of a pre-dawn ritual of women at the thresholds of homes, temples and businesses in South India, especially in Tamilnadu, these temporary works are created using rice flour placed in patterns based on a grid of dots. While gripping the flour between the fingers of one’s hand, one releases it continuously to create lines, curves and motifs featured in the completed designs.
Various theories suggest the significance of these art forms. These include their use as a welcoming feature, an invitation to Goddess Lakshmi, an ode to Mother Earth, a ward against evil, or a “charity begins at home” gesture, as nearby ants, bugs and birds feed on the rice flour.
I was an active participant in competitions to create kolam and rangoli, a regional name for this art form, during my elementary school years in Chennai. Kolam can be as addictive as sudoku puzzles. I resumed practicing and studying this therapeutic art form more closely in 2019, giving it centre stage in my paintings last year.
To me, even as we physically distance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such art is a reminder that we humans are all “connected” in so many ways: in shared experiences of joy, pain and healing. My Kolam/Connections series allows me to share my culture and symbolize that we are all connected/braided/woven together as part of one race – the human race.
A current prestigious 2021 online exhibit “W is for Woman” features many of my kolam paintings. The writer, publisher and Sothebys Art Institute alumna, Rupi Sood has curated this virtual exhibit to showcase women artists of the East. Personally, it’s so fulfilling that the universal narrative has resonated intimately with people the world over.
I truly believe that the energy of a kolam attracts other kolam lovers. For years I had been relaying my own anecdotal knowledge of kolams from my family’s matriarchs but was searching for more in-depth information on the subject. I was overjoyed to recently stumble upon a comprehensively researched book on kolams, “Feeding a Thousand Souls” by University of San Francisco professor Vijaya Nagarajan, Ph.D. Her work is a must for kolam lovers. Another rich source is the extensive research on the math behind kolams by Penn State University professor Venkatraman Gopalan, Ph.D., “A Topological Approach to Creating any Pulli Kolam.”
A crazy and timely coincidence is that I heard about a team of D.C. volunteers (thanks to a friend) who initiated a community art project 2021 Inauguration Kolam back in December 2020. Their mission was to create a large physical tiled kolam art installation near the White House for the Jan. 20, 2021, Biden-Harris Inauguration! While I didn’t find out about this project in time to send in a physical kolam, I was grateful to submit a photo of my kolam paintings for a Digital Kolam Mosaic the team is also creating for Inauguration Day. This project was featured on Jan. 16, 2021, as part of the Inauguration Welcome Celebration event!
One kolam begets another and so hope these resources help you learn more about this beautiful artform. Keep Calm & Kolam On!
Books & Research
Feeding a Thousand Souls by University of San Francisco professor Dr. Vijaya Nagarajan
A Topological Approach to Creating any Pulli Kolam by Penn State University professor Dr. Venkatraman Gopalan
Check out more of Meera Agarwal’s work here.