The Kolam contest

Today, the cultural as well as the economic context for the kolam has changed in Tamil Nadu. For a few years, the kolam, which once exhorted the virtues of the Indian woman is changing. The status and the territory of urban women have been remodelled, and extend far beyond the home to conquer public space. These two worlds are not necessarily opposed; it is just an extension of the territory, and so an extension of women’s power and emancipation. The home, the family, and more particularly the woman, is invested with a new role. She is not only the guardian of the home but also the custodian of traditions and of the soul and spirit of India. She is also the precious link between ancestral customs and modernity.

Kolam contests take place in schools, in public halls and during college festivals. Although a sharp sense of competitiveness usually exists between village and city women, the object of this emulation is not so much the kolam itself as the perfection and the patience displayed while drawing it. Winning means personal recognition for the women, which does not exist within the framework of the household, where anonymity prevails and equals modesty if not humility.

So women do not hesitate to step outside the home to take part in contests with others who are just as passionate about this art. In my opinion, the most creative contest is the one which takes place in Mylapore, a neighbourhood in Chennai. The challenge for the women who take part is to draw a kolam from a framework of dots on a piece of asphalt measuring one square metre.

Unlike most contests, the use of colours is not allowed here and this is the very reason why it’s so unique. A monochrome drawing made of rice flour or the powder of white stone can explore many different graphical possibilities like the spatiality of motifs, their sculpture-like quality and the subtle play of parallel or interlacing lines.

Here, women forget about the designs they had learnt from their mothers and create by letting their personalities come to the fore. With thick or thin contours, closely-spaced or dispersed dots, and wide or fine lines which can be snaking or tame, the monochrome kolam becomes musical. Each graphical evocation is a song which enriches this magnificent bouquet of images which makes up this Tamil visual tradition.