It all started with an invitation to watch the kolam making in the lane of the very popular canteen called “Mami Tiffen stall”. During the sacred month of Margazhi  the entrance of the traditional Mylapore restaurant in Chennai sparkles with numerous floor drawings as everywhere else in the neighbourhood and in Tamil-Nadu.
It is at 10 PM after the closure of the place that a team led by Latha or Anantha Valli waters the threshold and part of the alley. A few young men cooks during the day become assistants at night and lend a hand to the lady of the house. She draws and they fill up the spaces with coloured powders or enhance certain lines with red iron oxide called kâvi. They hurry up as tomorrow morning by 6 o’clock the first customers appear and drawings will be there to welcome them.
Latha and Anandha Valli are talented artists. Their expert hands draw effortlessly double lines which flow through their fingers to outline one or several large-sized padi kolam.
Anantha Valli takes over two days later because her sister-in-law returned to her family home for a few days.
“I draw free hand by the grace of God… it comes that is all.. when sitting in front of the tulasi, I visualise the situation, He shows the way and I draw the picture”.
Ramamani lives in Bangalore but does not like to speak much about herself except that she retired after having worked as a government employee. Her main occupation is her offering through prayers or “Sri Krishnarpanamastu”. She draws daily in front of the Tulasi pot, stories of Krishna on a granite slab with powders. The watercolor rendering effect adds elegance to the sceneries.
Inspired by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, she hopes that every image will finally reach her Lord. Earlier, she used to draw the Shanka and Cakra until one day, after having visited a temple in Sonda (a village near Sirsi in Uttara Kannada), she felt the urge to paint various stories of Krishna.
At the Sri Ramakrishna temple in Chennai, self-assured Maheswari is drawing kôlam as a seva, or a ‘selfless service’. She attends all the important festivals at the temple, where her graphical offerings are admired by many temple worshippers. At a special event commemorating the birth anniversary of Vivekananda, I join her in this haven of peace in the very lively neighbourhood of Mylapore.
From the main entrance, the salmon pink temple looks like a giant elaborate wedding cake. However, in contrast to Dravidian temples, it is almost austere and anyone of any religion or faith is welcome to come meditate here. As night falls, Maheswari heads to the chapel where a statue of Sarada Devi, the spiritual companion of Ramakrishna, is kept. On the black floor, three opalescent kolam gradually appear, turning white as they dry. Maheswari has chosen this wet technique which is especially popular during festivities because they last for several days. The technique consists of holding a piece of cotton fabric dipped in a milk-like mixture made with rice flour and water in the hollow of the hand. The thumb presses it lightly, causing the liquid to run between the slightly spread fingers. Two or three parallel lines can be drawn at one time in this way.
With this graphical homage complete, she makes her way to the temple courtyard where projectors illuminate the spot where she will create a much larger kolam design. She spends several hours drawing square shapes with long undulating movements. These squares are juxtaposed, creating first a cross, then a square, bordered with imaginary doors placed at the four cardinal points. The rice water glistens in the light while the speakers blare devotional hymns, or bhajans. A crowd gathers around Maheswari, making appreciative noises and lifting their heads and both hands to the sky as if to say: “this woman is blessed by the gods”. The kolam is complete when she outlines the outer edges of the star-shaped kolam with a red powder made from hematite, or red oxide, called kavi.
 Swami Vivekananda was born on 12 January 1863 in Kolkata in the state of West Bengal. Brought up in an affluent family, he was fascinated by sacred Hindu texts from a young age. When he was 17 he met Ramakrishna who became his spiritual teacher. Renouncing the world, Vivekananda took over the ashram at the death of his guru. Tall and imposing, he made a sensation a few years later during his speech presented at the World Expo in Chicago. He then embarked on a world tour to share the teachings of Ramakrishna. He made a triumphant return to India and founded the Ramakrishna Mission which aims to help the underprivileged.
Apart from collecting year after year kolam designs along the lanes of Mylapore or in Tamil villages, I like to learn drawing also. I may never become as skilled as many of the women I met but I enjoy assembling dot after dot a symmetrical canvas and join the little marks until imaginary flowers or powdered birds arise from the ground. My favorites are line kolam with double or shaded lines. Their basic structure alternate from an austere square to a wavier one. I understood that they respectively belong to two different traditions. The shivaite kolam are strict parallel lines akin to a zen garden that is raked to represent ripples in water. The Vaishnavaite ones undulate and form curly ribbons hosting flowers, fruits or birds at times with a baroque touch.
My great pleasure as soon as I reach Chennai and my hotel is to read The Hindu newspaper. One year, I came across a few lines mentioning the publication of a book on kolam. You can imagine how excited I was. Next day jumping in a rickshaw, I reach CP Ramaswami Aiyer Foundation in Alwarpet, bought the book and contacted right away, the artist Mrs Janaki Gopalan.
Her daughter to whom I had phoned previously, arranged a meeting and took me by bus to her house. At the gate, one of the most elegant Vaishnavite style kolam I had ever seen, welcomed us both. I was struck by the perfect symmetry and the translucent lightness of the lines. Pineapples and pomegranates sit on the four corners. Birds reaching out for blooming flowers connect leaf-like patterns. Curvy lines alternate with finely decorated pots. The concave square in the center appears fluffy, flimsy almost frivolous as the four lines delineating its body zigzag softly. I had rarely seen such dexterity and artistry combined. I learnt a few designs; she drew for me with her magic hand and I am still dazzled by so much poetry and creative expression.
The book echoes her talent to create exclusive patterns and the feelings that flood her heart in the morning. Available here
A long time ago when I started mixing even melting in South Indian culture, many words related to the position of a married woman caught my attention by their symbolic contents. I first learned the word pativrata (pati means husband and vrata, a vow) which describes a woman who worships her husband as god himself and remain loyal even if he becomes blind, diseased poor or impotent. Learning Kathakali in Kerala and mostly female roles, I met some of the five illustrious Pativratas, namely, Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, and Mandodari. The lines that I personated enlightened me on the various concepts attached to this status. The second word was sumankali the auspicious and dutiful married woman.
Subhadra N. whom I met in Chennai many years back embodied these principles. She and her husband invited me to celebrate Pongal at their home far away from Chennai center.I spent three days with the family and the first morning I watched how carefully and precisely she would draw in the kitchen various designs. In fact they were many of them, different in size and style. Next to the place where she would store the vessels, there was an empty space with colourful images of gods and goddesses. Facing the place, she would sit in silence, grab a cup filled up with holy ashes known as tirunîru and draw the diagram for the planet ruling each day of the week.
Next to it, hidden under a bronze sculpture of Hanuman, she draws a triangular graph shaped like a tiny mountain with a curled ribbon arising from the bottom of the figure. She explained to me that it symbolizes the monkey-god Hanuman and his quest for the healing herbs that had cured prince Rama’s brother fallen on the battle field. In the home its magical presence was to prevent diseases and death to manifest.
On the right side two stylized birds with entwined bodies sit under a lotus petals canopy. Above their heads the sun and the moon incarnate husband and wife. As she writes the kôlam, she explains that it will prevent separation and sufferings in the couple.
On the left, a lotus with eight petals in a circle welcomes two feet dedicated to Râma. Each petal bears a word from the mantra “Jaya, Jaya Râma, Sri Râma, Jaya Râma”.According to her, this kôlam is equivalent to the invocation of the divine name.