Here I am, documenting another kolam contest. This one was part of the Mylapore Festival, a four-day event culminating this past Sunday. This vibrant part of older Chennai is famous for its Kapaleeshwarar temple. Mid afternoon, entrants began lining up sporting colorful saris and salwars, finding their square area and ensuring that it was swept clean and moistened. Some nervously studied their drawn plans, with mother-daughter teams ensuring that both knew what to do.
Ready, Set, Dot!
As soon as the go-ahead was given, participants of all ages descended upon the pavement of the road blocked off for the event. Ages varied, the youngest at 4 years old all the way up to white-haired grannies with no teeth. Even a couple men gave it a shot. Many dumped the provided rice flour powder into their favorite containers – plastic bowls, half a coconut, etc. Soon the square areas were filled with varying numbers of flour dots, carefully spaced and arranged to form the backbone for the artist’s design.
Documenting the Process
Walking around (and trying not to get in the way of any participant, the cameraman, and not to step on any design), I documented the process with my camera and camcorder. Lines were deftly drawn around dots in some designs, while others covered the dots, using them as strategic markers. Others preferred to add dots as the design grew. Completing all repeating parts of the same radial symmetrical design was the preferred method of some; others worked from the center outward, still others from the borders, and a few didn’t seem to have a very organized method. Some executed their designs in an expedient, confident manner. Nervousness was exacerbated as mistakes were made and the individual hastily tried to obliterate the marks with a rag and water. Line quality varied in thickness and level of control. Shaky hands or the less coordinated control of a child didn’t deter anyone. Postures also varied, with some standing straight and bending down at the hips, and others expertly squatting. All had the ability to work around their design without smearing their own creation or that of their neighbors. The more skilled women were able to create amazingly thin lines, accommodating their straight or curvilinear designs.
Admiring the Designs
About a half an hour later, even the most complicated designs and slow workers had finished. People began walking about more freely, admiring the variety of designs executed in different levels of skills. Some designs were more traditional in composition. Others were less geometric in design and featured birds, stylized animals, and flowers. Symmetry was a common element with the majority of kolams. All had a chance to vote for their favorite one.
Throughout the contest and afterwards, Indians came up to me inquiring about how I enjoyed India, what I thought of the kolam designs, how long I had been in the country, and where I was from – all questions I had answered before. Quite a number of them had been to the USA, lived there, or had family members in America. While pausing a moment in between photos, the cameraman came up, handed me his lapel microphone, and asked me similar questions. At least I could answer halfway intelligently about kolam designs. Perhaps I was on some local TV station.
Following a short stick dance performance by some young girls dressed in heavy makeup, colorful dresses, and lots of jewelry, I visited the temple and photographed the magnificent gopuram illuminated with the golden afternoon sun. Following a short stay at the nearby stage where instrumentalists and dancers performed, I took the local bus back to my neighborhood. Another afternoon of India culture was now over.