Heritage art, mythological meaning, visual artistry, mathematical calculation, and environmental awareness are all wrapped up into the innocuous kolam that sits on the front steps of any home in southern India.
Dr. Vijaya Nagarajan in her book, “Feeding a Thousand Souls: Women, Ritual and Ecology in India – An Exploration of the Kolam,” elevates this practice of drawing a kolam followed by millions of women into one that is worthy of being studied. Painstaking research over many years traveling through the towns and villages of south India laid the groundwork for the book, which is sincere and extensive at the same time in uncovering the many strands of thinking that bind together to inform the daily practice of drawing the kolam.
I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Vijaya Nagarajan about the process of research and writing that went into this book. “I came to America when I was five years old and went back to India when I was barely ten, and we stayed in my grandfather’s village home for three months. That’s when I really fell in love with the kolam. To draw a kolam with perfect symmetry can be pretty hard and challenging. At the crack of dawn, I would accompany my grandfather to the fields and all the women would be coming out of their houses to draw kolams outside their homes. It is believed that the kolam should be drawn before the first ray of sunlight hits the threshold of the house.”
That early fascination with the kolam stayed with her thanks to her mother’s adherence to the same practice wherever they lived from suburban Maryland to New Delhi. She writes in the book, “As a child I watched my mother create kolam patterns in front of the many houses we lived in, from India to America, and back and forth again…The kolam seemed to be one of the few constants in my family’s nomadic, bicultural migratory life, which crisscrossed continents every few years.”
In the 1980s Dr. Nagarajan met Ivan Ilich, an influential philosopher who questioned her about her mother’s daily kolam drawing practice. When asked about it, she replied – “Oh, it’s just something my mother does every day” That reply did not satisfy Ilich who peppered her with questions for hours about the practice. That questioning laid the seed for her own musings on what she had almost taken for granted in more ways than one. In suburban Maryland, her mother would wake up early, wiping the frost-laden steps to draw the kolam using rice flour and Dr. Nagarajan recalled that the reflexive action was to always sidestep the kolam while stepping into the house. That action was of course related to not spoiling the painstaking work that had gone into drawing it. But, the physical act of sidestepping and overlooking can be interpreted differently too. Physically avoiding stepping on the kolam was similar to what she acknowledges to be the ‘taking for granted’ nature for work done by many who are non-literate. “We have some prejudices against these people. We do not probe to find more about the kinds of knowledge that are embedded in these visual traditions.”
“Ivan Ilich’s questions forced me to ask hard questions that took me to explore so many strands of thinking – medieval Tamil literature, mythology, art – this book has been an incredible journey in so many ways, It has been the key for my return to India on multiple occasions. The whole book was a task of unraveling a series of puzzles. So many elderly women taught me how the kolam connected to other forms of knowledge and how the visual that we see is a rich repository of all of these arts.”
The life of Andal, the medieval Vaishnavite saint is connected to the ancient practice of ‘paavai nombu” where young girls bathed in the river together and then headed to the temple to pray. Part of their daily ritual was the drawing of the kolam and this tradition took the author to the famous Andal temple at Srivilliputhur. This research also took her to study the choreography of late dancer Chandralekha who spoke passionately thus, “The kolam is at the center of my dance choreographies, and it is a foundational critical reference point in Tamil culture and Indian culture in general.” Her visualization of the body in movement related to the structure of the kolam itself and the many layers that it represented.
Dr. Nagarajan talks effusively about the generosity of countless women who spent time explaining how they saw the kolam in their daily lives. “This book is informed by my interactions with hundreds and hundreds of women,” she states. When asked about why they drew the kolam with unfailing regularity, many of the women stated that it was an act of offering to Bhudevi – Mother Earth – for the burden that human beings caused to her throughout the day. When we build a house, the women told her, “we destroy many small insects and animals that were living there. When we draw the kolam every morning, we feed these souls and think of Mother Earth – Bhudevi.”
Sharing this nugget of knowledge that she gained which forms the title of her book – Feeding a Thousand Souls, the researcher in Dr. Nagarajan remarks, “The modern gaze reduces these rituals to mere art – without looking at so many strands of thinking. The kolam is kind of a testament to 1000 years of visual and aural knowledge.”
Reading this book made me ruminate about my own personal experience with the kolam as well – Why the kolam? Had I spent even a minute thinking about that question when I lived in India? Of course not – it was always there inside the puja room and at the doorstep leading into my home. One summer I learnt to draw kolams from my mother and grandmother and it was one part of growing up that I did not question.
But, once we leave India, not only do we question these practices – our children do as well. Why do we draw the kolam? Why is it done with rice flour? – the very act of migration makes mundane daily acts take on more meaning. Furrowed brows, trying to recreate conversations with grandmothers and aunts from years ago – trying to answer the proverbial “Whys” uttered by second-generation immigrant children is a task that we are all familiar with.
Reading this book will take you across the oceans to understand in its entirety one daily task that dates back hundreds of years – the drawing of the kolam. The book is similar to the subject it aimed to study – just as the lines of the kolam effortlessly twine in and out creating a tapestry on the floor, the words and the pictures in the book flow effortlessly creating a wonderful tribute to the beautiful kolam.
Step in with wonder to savor this treasure of a book.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.