Saturday, October 8, 2011



Aesthetic and Religious Aspects of this Ancient Indian Art

(By N.R. Srinivasan)


Rangoli or Kolam is an ancient art of India, where women paint or stamp or weave with fingers designs on the floor of their houses, at the entrance of their homes, and in front of sanctums, where they place their Gods and Goddesses, which is usually called the prayer room. This art form is called Rangoli in Maharashtra and Kolam in the Southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Saathio of Gujrat, Mmandn of Rajasthan, Aripan of Bihar, Aipan of Uttaranchal, Muggulu of Andhra Pradesh, square Purna of U.P., Rangavalli of Karnataka and Alpana of Bengal are the other names for this art from different regions of India. Kolams are made from rice flour. Kolams in some instances make use of sand, lime and wet red soil (called Chemman in Tamil) for borders. Handed down through the ages, it is a greatly developed art and its beauty lies in its ability to be ever fresh and lively and because of its instant nature. The fingers weave intricate patterns with lines and dots and freelancing is always possible. Kolam is a geometrical line drawing composed of curved loops drawn around a grid pattern of dots with symmetry, precision and complexity providing good exercise to eyes and mind. Young girls were expected to learn and master this art from older women in the household and be accomplished by the time they reached the marriageable age. In fact it was considered a qualification in the olden days, before women could go to school.


To prepare the area for a Kolam application, first the floor is swept, washed and then wiped off the excess water so that it holds the dry rice powder for some time. Fresh applications are done morning and evening in the same manner and each house displays a variety of intricate designs, with rare repetitions. On festive occasions the whole house gets these decorations, the corners, around the walls, centers of the living room, dining room, kitchen etc.

Sometimes these get accompanied with borders of different colors.


Some households use red soil (chemman) to make borders. These are very attractive designs and add much color to festive occasions. There is always a competitive spirit among the young ones to portray the best of their abilities and win applauds. Art loving talented devotees take it upon themselves to regularly visit temples and decorate the entrance of sanctums with these Kolam designs. Applying Kolam before any festive event creates an aura of auspiciousness for that occasion, and commencement of that event. For instance it is a practice in Tamil Nadu and Karnaataka to stamp the two baby feet of Krishna from the entrance of the house to the prayer room for Krishna Janmaashtami (Krishna's birthday). Faces or impressions of Gods or Goddesses are not usually imprinted, except in the prayer room, because it is the Hindu practice not to step on images of the Lord. Since kolam patterns are an art form, it is considered to be Soundarya Lakshmi and stepping on it is considered disrespectful. At the commencement of Homa rituals (fire sacrifices) at temples and in homes, the homakundam (fire tub) and areas around are swept and washed and only after application of Kolam will the priest commence any services. This is called "Sthala Suddhi". It is believed that this practice wards off evil and prevents the entry of negative and unwanted energies. This process takes place before any auspicious event. In the same token, in Tamil Nadu, when a loved one passes away, the household stops applying the kolam in front of the residence for a whole year as a mark of mourning this loss. Visitors are thus alerted to some misfortune at this residence. In Kerala these decorations are elaborately designed with flowers during Vishu (Kerala New Year) and at Onam. Flowers and lamps are used to enhance the beauty of these patterns. The flowers stay on for several days on these patterns.


Rangoli designs are popular in Maharashtra and Gujarat and are rich and colorful. Those who love this art constantly experiment with shapes, sizes, floral, geometric and free flowing designs, colored powders, flower petals and freshly mowed grass. Designs include favorite motifs, concentric circles, chakraas, birds, animals, floral patterns etc. that are continuous and free flowing.


Not only did these designs decorate the entrance of the house but also gave an outlet to creative talents. The women compete genially with each other to exhibit their talents and expertise in full. Rangoli competitions also take place during Ganesh Chathurthi, Navaraathri, Divali, Sankaranti, Gudi paduwa, Vishu to encourage this ancient art and keep it alive. Rangoli or Kolam was and is the cheapest form of artistic expression that young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and villagers can indulge. In recent years, circular tin molds are sold commercially, which when filled with rice flour and moved across the floor creates repetitive patterns for ease and speed. Also, stick-on patterns are being sold for permanent fixings, as people do not find time to indulge in such artwork.


It is believed that Rangoli or Kolam invites positive and auspicious energies to enter the house while preventing the flow of negative energies into the house. Perhaps Lakshmana used this technique in creating a "Lakshmana Rekha" (Lakshmana's line) with the intention of protecting Sita against evil intruders while he was away. He instructed Sita not to cross the line while he was away. When Sita crossed this line to give alms to the stranger, Ravana disguised as the mendicant, was able to abduct her. Older generation of India believed that it drove away disturbance, disease, discord, while establishing peace, understanding and good health, when dedicated to the Lord.


It is a vedic practice to sprinkle water around the plate as an act of purification before partaking meals and place five morsels of food on the side of the plate acknowledging the debt we owe to the divine force (devata runa), our ancestors (pitru runa), the Sages (Rishi runa), our fellow beings (manushya runa) and other living beings (bhoota runa).The day begins by offering this rice powder as Kolam, outside, at the entrance of the house, to these living beings (bhoota runa), the birds and ants who serve this world selflessly.


Rangoli or Kolam being an old tradition was popular with the Parsis and the hill tribes. On PATETI the New Year Eve for Parsis in India, Rangoli patterns are stamped with tin moulds to decorate the steps and thresholds of their homes. The tribes called Worlis, near Mumbai decorate their walls with wonderful rangoli designs. So do people in Gujarat and Rajasthan.


When did this ancient art take shape and how did it survive through the ages? It looks as though, that this art has been practiced from the vedic period and developed into yantra and tantra form of worship and later was blessed by Sakta Agamaas. In Dakshinaachaara of the Sakta Agamaas, Devi is invoked in an image or symbol of the "Sri Chakra" with Vedic mantras. The yantras and tantras are highly symbolic and esoteric forms of invoking the Lord. Yantras are visual symbols representing the various deities and other aspects of creation. The Sri Charka, which is a typical Kolam pattern, is looked upon as symbolic of the whole creation. Lord Sudharshana is also worshipped in the yantra form, which is a kolam pattern.


Every Hindu deity has three modes of manifestation or expression: 1) Moorti, a three dimensional sculpture; 2) Yantra, a two dimensional geometric pattern; 3) Mantra, a thought form for contemplation. Srichakra is essentially a Yantra. It is a complicated figure of forty-three triangles formed by the intersection of nine triangles of which five have their apex downwards and the other four upwards. This is surrounded by concentric circles with eight and then sixteen lotus petals. The whole figure is skirted by a square of three lines with openings in the middle each side. There is a dot in the center of the entire diagram. Srichakra is the geometri abode of Srilaita. It is believed the art of kolam in Tamilnadu was inspired by Srichakra. There is also another story as to the origin of this art.


As the story goes, many thousands of years ago, there lived a pious man by the name of Sudharma. There came a time when his concentration got disturbed. He went to his teacher, a rishi (sage) Vairata, who lived in the forest. He prostrated in front of the rishi and requested for a solution for the discomfiture and lack of concentration. The rishi instructed him to go the edge of the forest where he could find a quarry of white stones. He was to powder the stone and decorate the threshold of his house with auspicious designs using this powder. Sudharma thanked the rishi and proceeded to do as his guru advised. From then on, he made it a practice to rise early in the morning and around sunrise, wash and clean the threshold and then decorate it with the symbols of the sun and moon, the swastika, the tulsi vrindaavan and the Lord's holy feet. This brought a phenomenal change in Sudharma's life. Neighbors and friends seeing this, followed suit. Thus the art of Rogoli or Kolam was born with religious fervor. The Tulsi Vrindaavan pooja with kolam decoration in the backyard in Hindu South Indian families is a very common sight.


Rangoli and Kolam stickers are slowly taking the place of the art itself, announcing its doomsday. It has neither the beauty nor the freshness of the original form.


Contributions from N. R. Srinivasan and Kamala Raghunathan.


Considerable assistance had been drawn from the Chinmaya Mission Trust and Arsha Vidya Gurukulam publications, in preparation of this article which is great-fully acknowledged.


[This article has been written in appreciation of the dedicated services rendered to this art continually by Smt. Rajalakshmi Krishna Iyer, the octogenarian. One can see her regularly at the Sri Ganesha Temple in Nashville, TN, USA, stamping these intricate patterns at the sanctums quietly with her dexterous fingers, and at the same time constantly inspiring and encouraging others to take interest in this ancient art which is slowly fading particularly amongst migrant Hindus].