My marriage was arranged because of kolam. I make good kolam. So everyone saw and aunty said that I saw your kolam and I want you be my daughter-in-law. ~ Swathi
Kolam, an ephemeral form of daily ritual art, practiced almost solely by Hindu women in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, has come to construct ‘ideal’ Tamil womanhood. Kolam is drawn daily by women on the threshold of their house, before dawn and dusk. As the quote above suggests, it is central to women’s lives and constructs ‘ideal’ Tamil femininity. In this article, I explore some of the ways in which kolam defines Tamil womanhood, how Tamil Hindu women relate to their practice of kolam and how globalisation has affected women’s practice of this art form. I draw on two in depth interviews with two Hindu Tamil women, Swathi and Amala, both in their thirties, in Pondicherry who have been making kolams for over thirty years and also teach the art to tourists in a cultural centre in Pondicherry.
Kolam and Tamil womanhood
Swathi and Amala both recount how they learnt to draw kolam from their mothers when they were children. Amala grew up in Pondicherry and Swathi in a neighbouring town, and both women describe how this was a ritual practiced solely by women at home. Probing further, it became clear that men made kolams too. The spaces in which women and men drew kolam was different. The kolams that we normally see are drawn on the threshold of homes every day, and those for festivals such as Pongal during the Margazhi month, or Deepavali and Christmas in Tamil Christian homes. But some are also drawn in powder or with paint inside temples, and often in the sanctum sanctorum which contains the deity. The latter is drawn solely by men, who are hired specifically to do the job or by the temple priests. Swathi, who comes from a Brahmin family of priests, recounts how women are not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum. She notes how her father and uncles, who were the temple priests, would draw the kolams in the sanctum sanctorum before the daily prayers. These men, though, would never draw a kolam at home, and consequently, women never drew kolams inside the temple. This clearly puts women back within the home and the domain of the private, while men occupy the public and ritual space of the temple.
Swathi and Amala also discuss how they were initiated into making kolams during their childhood and were given a rationale for it. They were told that drawing these would give them patience, sharpen their memory and help their bodies grow strong. When I asked Swathi why this wasn’t necessary for boys, she replied that they didn’t have the patience to make kolams. Amala, through her interview kept emphasising on the physical benefits of practicing this art and how it helped women to have stronger pelvic bones making it easier for them to have children. Since it is drawn by bending down from the waist and keeping the legs straight, I asked Amala and Swathi the effects kolam-making had on their health. Amala recounted how she didn’t have back pain while drawing them, but since the difficult birth of her daughter, she has put on weight and her legs and thighs hurt while drawing. She emphasises that daily kolams do not take longer than fifteen or twenty minutes to draw, and are physically painless. Kolams drawn during festivals such as Pongal require an hour or two of labour and is painful for Amala. Despite this she continues drawing kolam since it gives her great joy to do it. As the wife of the eldest son in her marital family, she is also the one responsible for drawing them. She tells me that her younger sisters-in-law are neither adept nor interested in drawing kolam and Amala shoulders all those responsibilities. Swathi on the other hand, tells me that when she first started making them, she experienced back and leg pain.
Swathi and Amala both discuss how kolam is central to their marital life. In their natal families they have the option of not making them, but as married women, it is their responsibility to wake up every day at dawn to draw a kolam. As mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this article, kolam-making is central to women being wives and daughter-in-laws. Apart from knowing how to cook and clean the house, making these designs forms the basis of the duties expected of Tamil women while getting married. Jumel (2013) describes how kolam reflects on the femininity of the woman and as future householder. Eligible young women are judged by the kolam that they draw. For instance, if the design is elaborate and complex, the young woman is supposed to be patient. If the composition is symmetric, she is supposed to be steady. If her design is neat and meticulous, she is supposed to possess rigour. Jumel mentions how during her research she found a matrimonial advertisement in The Hindu which added kolam-making to the long list of qualities a young woman possessed (49).
A friend confided in a conversation that landlords in Chennai ask their women tenants whether they know how to draw a kolam before they rent their houses out to them. Amala also describes that during her nuptials her in-laws were shown her skills in kolam-making, cooking and garland making and that allowed her to establish her legitimacy as future daughter-in-law. Swathi and Amala have made the effort to continue being the favourite daughter-in-law in their marital home by dutifully making a kolam every morning. They describe kolam making as less of a duty, and more of an activity which gives them joy, but the link between their kolam-making and their acceptance as ‘good’ daughters-in-law is unmistakable. It is also clear that daily kolam-making for women is legitimised on the basis of health and prepares women to be reproductive beings rather than artists or other professionals.
Apart from constructing ‘ideal’ femininity, kolam also helps women work in public spaces, as teachers and sometimes artists. Swathi and Amala teach kolam to foreign tourists visiting Pondicherry. They have both worked at a cultural centre which allows Indians as well as foreign tourists to learn about Pondicherry’s art, culture and heritage. Most of their students are white women and men, and Swathi and Amala talk admiringly of the white men who are willing to learn kolam while the men in their own community refuse to take interest in the ritual art.
Kolam- making though was not the first profession that Swathi and Amala chose. Swathi trained to be a microbiologist and worked as a researcher for many years. Swathi laments that her profession did not allow her to participate in the festivals that she was required to by her marital family which led to discord. At the same time, Swathi was interested in different forms of art: applying mehndi, crafts such as origami, paper jewellery, quiling and kolam. Her brother supported her in her shift from being a microbiologist to a kolam teacher. She taught kolam at the cultural centre for four years and now makes mehndi for tourists. She taught over a thousand people in four years and earned more money teaching kolam than working as a microbiologist. Teaching kolam at the cultural centre allowed her to have a flexible work schedule which gave her time to spend with her marital family. At the cultural centre, she also felt safe as a female artist and enjoyed meeting people from different countries. During our conversation, Swathi showed me selfies she had taken with a number of her students. She also insisted that she would teach kolam-making commercially only through the cultural centre and not independently.
Similarly, Amala was also in a different profession before she started teaching kolam. She studied and worked as a librarian and quit her job after her marriage. During our conversation, she continued to emphasise how she wanted to be a housewife and give all her time to her marital family and made a distinction between her home and work. She started teaching kolam at the behest of a friend and continues to do so today. Her timings though are restricted to when her daughter is at school, allowing her to put her householder duties before her work as a kolam teacher.
Swathi and Amala also perceive their relationship to kolam differently. Amala is clear that she is not a kolam artist, but a kolam teacher passing on traditional designs to her students. Swathi on the other hand identifies as an artist, who likes to innovate, is ‘passionate’ about kolam and is willing to teach her friends and children for free. She also discusses how there are professional women kolam artists who are hired specifically to draw for marriages and festivals. She is learning to make portraits of people using kolam but is not too keen on being a ‘professional kolam artist’ since it takes three to four hours to make a single kolam for a festival or marriage. This is despite the fact that she gets offers from event organisers to make kolams professionally. Before she started teaching, Swathi used to draw mehndi for women in a beauty parlour and her networks from the parlours allow her to connect to the professional world of kolam-making.
Kolam competitions have also become very popular and a number of women participate in them. These are held all over Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry and are practiced publicly on the streets. Since Amala’s mother is conservative, she did not allow her to make kolams in public. Swathi, on the other hand participated in a number of competitions and won many awards, stating that she participated not to win but to show off her talents to others. She notes that these competitions lend an increased social status to the winner since word gets around people flock to the winner’s house to see their kolams. Her father was especially proud of her prowess in making kolams at competitions. In Pondicherry, women who participate in kolam-making competitions have their own Facebook page solely dedicated to their art where they regularly display photographs of their kolams.
Kolam-making in public, either through competitions, professionally for weddings or festivals, or teaching kolam in cultural centres, allows these women to view themselves as artists and to commercially sell their art. Unlike paintings, kolams are ephemeral and do not allow the women to sell individual kolams. But the Facebook pages are testimony to the designs that these women create. Teaching the art also allows women to further feminise this form since it is seen as a ‘soft’ profession, never a career which demands one to leave the duties of the marital home. Despite bringing women to the public domain, kolam teaching, with its flexible working hours, draws women back into the home.
Teaching the art to foreigners allows for a transnational flow of the art form. Swathi discusses how an Italian man who learnt from her continued to draw kolams after he went back to his country and posts photographs of them on social media. She mentions how he called it 'street art'. It is interesting to see how the transnational travel of kolam from Pondicherry to Italy transforms it from ritual art to street art. Similarly, a Canadian woman who learnt from Swathi went on to participate in a kolam competition encouraged by the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and even met him to show off her art. Other forms of transnational travel of kolam include using the designs to decorate cakes and homes.
This exploratory essay tried to understand how kolam-making constructs ‘ideal’ Tamil womanhood. It explored the different ways in which women are made to perform the ritual art so that it keeps them within the confines of the home. It also constructs the ‘ideal’ Tamil womanhood, perpetuating traditional gender roles. Even when the art moves into the public domain, it retains the status quo of traditional gender roles. At the same time, kolam competitions contribute to women’s status within the community and allows them to engage with social media. Transnational travel of kolam brings the ritual art within the domain of modernity by positioning it as street art. This though, it solely practiced by men. But within the community of women practitioners of kolam, it remains within the domain of ritual art.
Jumel, Chantal. 2013. Voyage dans l’Imaginaire Indien : Kolam, Dessins Ephemeres des Femmes Tamoules. Paris: Geuthner.
 I have changed the names of the two women to protect their identities.