By Gargi Singh
Driving my scooter in the soft sunlight of the early morning hours, I cruise past houses in the narrow lanes of Puducherry, looking for a motif.
A motif that I will find outside any house whose inhabitants have woken up, cleaned their home and are beginning their day’s work. I found some, faded from the previous day, outside shut doors of houses suggesting the inactivity within.
As I looked upon the impression of the old motif, it did not fail to intrigue me. A continuation of lines in different patterns twirled around dots – representing life itself – simple at the core, surrounded by complexity.
I moved on in pursuit of a freshly drawn ‘Kolum’ as it is called in Tamil Nadu, India.
In the lane behind a small temple, I knocked on the door of a house in the hope of finding some english speaking person among the majority of Tamil speakers. Mano, an engineering student, came out. But he was puzzled by the intrigue I had towards a motif that was part of his daily life. Not knowing the why’s and how’s of the culture himself, he graciously agreed to translate between his grandmother and I.
The old lady clad in a Sari came out, container of the white powder in hand, ready to draw the Kolum of her home. She answered my queries in rapid Tamil “We make it with rich powder mixed with kolum powder as feed for the ants”, translated Mano for his grandmother, Manimegelai.
A drawing to feed the ants! In a world where we rid our houses of ants and don’t consider twice before squashing them, here was a culture built around feeding them!
Saying this, Manimegelai took a pinch of the powder in her fingers, bent down and started drawing dots at a set distance on the freshly washed pathway outside her house.
“Just like we decorate our foreheads, we decorate the porch of our house. It makes the guests feel good”, she said twirling lines around the dots in a continuous pattern with a deft and steady hand.
As she drew the motif, it felt like she was enveloping the energy of the place into her Kolum’s circular symmetry, like an orb.
As my gaze followed the white pattern rapidly unfolding on the wet grey pathway the beauty of the simple and sustainable thought around which the culture was developed engulfed me.
They decorate the entrance of their homes and add value to their environment. By using the edible, abundantly available rice powder instead of chemical based mediums to decorate their home the people, while achieving a motive for themselves, show consideration towards the most insignificant beings in our society – ants!
As I moved past houses, hungry for more insight into the culture, I found another lady rushing into her house after having just finished a more elaborate Kolum. Sagunthala, in her early morning haste kindly explained “rice powder alone flies off (does not settle) and so does kolum powder alone, the mixture of the two sticks well to the ground and the ants feed on the rice powder in the mixture”.
The morning proceeded and I saw more tamil women, young and old, come out to decorate the road outside their houses and slowly the streets filled up with the drawings, each unique in it’s appearance. I did not see any men making the motif.
“Mostly women, who are also called Housewives and involved in daily maintenance of the homes are into this business (of drawing Kolums) traditionally,” said P.Satyabhanu, a housewife from Orissa, through e-mail. “It is also a fact that ladies possess more artistic creativity than their male counter parts, and thus this tradition is followed mostly by women and girls”.
In Orissa the motif is called “Jhuti or Chitra”. In Satyabhanu’s ancestral state of Andhra Pradesh it is called “Muggu”.
“It is not only useful as a fodder to Ants and chicks but also a repellent to many poisonous insects,” she added.
After washing and cleaning the household, the area outside is sprinkled with cow dung and water to disinfect the surface before drawing the Kolum. The Morning prayers are performed after completing this chore. The motif has hence come to signify, among other things, that the house has been cleaned for the day and is ready to graciously welcome visitors.
While the presence of a Kolum signifies good fortune and happiness, its absence signifies death in the house. It is not drawn throughout the period of mourning in the family.
During the festival seasons women forgo the white powder for colourful options and make elaborate Kolums in the mornings and evenings to give the onlooker a beautiful sight.
During this period, usually the ‘Dhanur Masam’ from 14 December to 14 January, the “traditional Ratham Muggu (Kolum in the shape of a chariot) is very commonly seen” said Satyabhanu.
In the age of urbanization, the tradition believed to have its origin in the Puranic Age (age of the written scriptures) is losing its purpose. As the cultures shift from mud houses to cement apartments, this simple yet considerate tradition based around feeding the most insignificant beings like ants outside the house, is becoming redundant. As the housekeeping activities go into the hands of maids the beauty of a symbol for cleanliness holds no pride and no charm in the lives of young women who include ‘reaching office’ in the list of morning activities.
“Lack of space in front of houses is another reason,” said Satyabhanu as she talked about the difficulties urban areas face in pursuing the culture “it is still continuing in villages”.
Efforts are being made in cities to encourage the continuation of the tradition through competitions on festive days, whose prize money runs into “thousands” according to Satyabhanu who says that efforts are bring made by associations in India and abroad to encourage the tradition and “make the next generation aware of the art and take it further to the coming generations.”