What does the drawing of lines and dots (called kolam) mean to its creator? Does it have a sacred value or is it decorative art? What are some of its changing modes and contexts of production?
Drawing sacred designs called kolams is an essential element in most Hindu rituals. Every auspicious ceremony commonly requires that the place in which it is being conducted be ceremoniously decorated. These designs are put up not just for aesthetic appeal but more importantly because of the belief in their ability to invite prosperity, exude sanctity and ward off evil forces. By creating the designs of kolam, women in particular, transform the otherwise ordinary space (such as thresholds and private halls) into a ritual and sacred space. These designs also demonstrate the ethnicity of the community members through their unique type and style. There are hundreds of traditional kolam designs, each with unique features and styles. There are pulli kolams (with dots and lines) and line kolams (with lines only). There are also those drawn freehand with nature often serving as inspirations for the designs. Several designs consist of animals, birds, trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables and so on. Different types of traditional materials are used to draw these designs, ranging from rice powder and paste to multicoloured powders. For example, the Nagarathars adopt specific kolams for specific rites. During pudumai and thiruvadirai, though certain kolams drawn are common to other Hindu communities, the traditional Nagarathar kolam called nadu veetu kolam and the thiruvadirai kolam is a must in the ritual spaces. The nadu veetu kolam is made up of straight and curved lines and conch shells (photo 1). The thiruvadirai kolam is also specific to the Nagarathars. This kolam, which consists of drawings of parrots, is an integral part of the performance of ‘feeding the parrot’ ritual act.
The quality of objects may objectify the persons who have made them and used them. A thing well crafted or created embodies the skill, energy, knowledge and spiritual qualities of the maker and also interweaves gender identities and the objects. An excellently created nadu veetu kolam is therefore an embodiment of traditional Nagarathar womanhood.
In recent times a new category of ritual designs have emerged to meet the requirements of the diaspora consumer. There are several ritual accessory stores in India that have begun to cater to the needs and demands of the diaspora. Ritual things are made out of otherwise unconventional or non-traditional materials. The wooden or carpeted floors in houses abroad hinder the drawing of kolam with traditional materials such as rice powder or wet rice batter which needs to dry overnight. Therefore the designs made on wooden boards, stickers, woven rugs (photo 2) etc. become a convenient replacement for the traditional one. As ethnic boutiques and ritual accessory stores display these items beside the traditional versions, many of these modernized ritual objects have now found their way into several domestic altars and ritual celebrations among Nagarathars in Tamilnadu.
In contemporary times, kolam competitions have become an annual event in Chennai. Therefore every year in Chennai one can see the art of drawing kolam which was originally intended for ritual spaces and religious occasions has transformed into competitions where women of different ethnic groups (including Nagarathar women) compete for prize money and media coverage and subtly champion the ethnic value of their kolam. The creation of kolam which was previously just a private affair in domestic spaces and places of worship has now been channelled into the public arena with notions of public display and competitions. One can also see these ritual designs created in ethnographic museums or heritage centres in order to create the visual impact of traditional settings.
Mall, Amar 2007. ‘Design, Innovation and Agency in Pattern Construction’ in Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold (eds.) Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. Oxford: Berg.
 The Nagarathars, also called as Nattukottai Nagarathars or Nattukottai Chettiars, are a merchant-banking community native to the villages of Chettinad, a region in Tamilnadu, South India. They belong to the Vaishya caste under the Hindu Varna system. The Hindu Varna system is the caste system comprising the four castes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. Each of these castes further comprises several communities.