by Renuka, M.

Kolam, which means “form”,1 is a floor drawing made from coloured flour, and is used for ornamental or ceremonial design during traditional Indian festivities. In Gujarat and Maharashtra in Northern India, it is known as rangoli.2

History and purpose
The tradition of painting kolam is believed to have originated about 5,000 years ago. The kolam has two functions − religious and ornamental. Traditionally, various motifs were drawn on the floor to feed insects with the design made out of edible grains, and the dyes from vegetable colouring. This act of charity is encouraged in Hindu scriptures.The kolam is also drawn to welcome Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, into the home, and drives away the evil spirits.4 Its secondary purpose is to add aesthetic value to the home.5

The simplest form of the kolam is the pulli kolam or “dotted kolam”.6 Dots of rice flour are placed in a grid-like framework, which are then joined to take the form of a symmetrical shapes or a regular polygon. Symmetry was of key importance to the kolam artist, as it denotes universal balance or the Hindu aspect of Shiva-Shakti.7

Traditionally, it is painted at the entrance to a home, and may be small although larger designs are known to be painted at public spaces. The kolam is usually done by women, as it is considered the responsibility of the lady to maintain her household. In India, girls are trained to create the kolam from as young as six. Apart from training her to be a good housekeeper, kolam drawing also serves to fulfil physical, philosophical and spiritual aims. Physically, the woman has to bend at the waist and knees, stretching her hands, legs and upper torso out to draw the kolam. This stretches her muscles and joints, especially so since the kolam is usually drawn at dawn. Philosophically, the bending of the body symbolises humility. Spiritually, the artist has to silently concentrate on her creation, as if meditating. The drawing also encourages creativity.8

Besides geometrical shapes, the kolam incorporates natural motifs like animals, fruit, flowers, and conches. Additionally, the colours are bright and coordinated with a touch of intricate trimmings. Besides rice flour, other ingredients used include rice flour flowers, beads, grains lentils, shells, tinsel, salt, saw-dust, fruits and vegetables. A popular symbol painted in Malaysia is the sahasradala padmam or “thousand-petalled lotus”, which symbolises purity, blossoming and remaining undefiled despite growing in the mud. Other popular kolam designs are Gandabherunda, Kaverikunda, Garuda, Rama’s Throne, Lion’s Eye and Annapakhshi.9 While vegetables and sugarcanes are popular symbols drawn during Ponggal, the “Harvest Festival”, lamps would be the popular design for Deepavali.10 A water jar (kumbha) topped with mango leaves and coconut will be portrayed in wedding kolam.11

Although there are tools to help women create their kolams, the real measure of a master is when the kolam is done free-hand.12 Today, the art of kolam drawing is said to be becoming a vanishing tradition due to the availability of ready-made kolams.13

Renuka M.

1. Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald deSouza (eds), Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
2. H. Samat, H. “Kolam Artistry,” New Straits Times, 9 November 1996, 1. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
3. Samat, “Kolam Artistry,” 1.
4. “Arts & Crafts: Traditional Customs and Practices: Kolam,” Indian Heritage, last retrieved 27 May 2016.
5. Bai, “Bring This Beauty to Your Home.”
6. Samat, “Kolam Artistry.”
7. Bai, “Bring This Beauty to Your Home.”
8. Bai, “Bring This Beauty to Your Home.”
9. Samat, “Kolam Artistry.”
10. Bai, “Bring This Beauty to Your Home.”
11. Bai, “Bring This Beauty to Your Home.”
12. Samat, “Kolam Artistry.”
13. Samat, “Kolam Artistry.”

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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