Discover Kōlams, the Traditional Indian Patterns That Combine Art, Mathematics & Magic

Have accom­plished abstract geo­met­ri­cal artists come out of any demo­graph­ic in greater num­bers than from the women of South Asia? Not when even the most demand­ing art-school cur­ricu­lum can’t hope to equal the rig­or of the kōlam, a com­plex kind of line draw­ing prac­ticed by women every­where from India to Sri Lan­ka to Malaysia to Thai­land. Using hum­ble mate­ri­als like chalk and rice flour on the ground in front of their homes, they inter­weave not just lines, shapes, and pat­terns but reli­gious, philo­soph­i­cal, and mag­i­cal motifs as well — and they cre­ate their kōlams anew each and every day.

“Feed­ing A Thou­sand Souls: Kōlam” by Thacher Gallery at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“Tak­ing a clump of rice flour in a bowl (or a coconut shell), the kōlam artist steps onto her fresh­ly washed can­vas: the ground at the entrance of her house, or any patch of floor mark­ing an entry­point,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra’s Rohi­ni Cha­ki.

Work­ing swift­ly, she takes pinch­es of rice flour and draws geo­met­ric pat­terns: curved lines, labyrinthine loops around red or white dots, hexag­o­nal frac­tals, or flo­ral pat­terns resem­bling the lotus, a sym­bol of the god­dess of pros­per­i­ty, Lak­sh­mi, for whom the kōlam is drawn as a prayer in illus­tra­tion.”

Col­or­ful Kolam — Sivasankaran — Own work

Kōlams are thought to bring pros­per­i­ty, but they also have oth­er uses, such as feed­ing ants, birds, and oth­er pass­ing crea­tures. Cha­ki quotes Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co The­ol­o­gy and Reli­gious Stud­ies pro­fes­sor Vijaya Nagara­jan as describ­ing their ful­fill­ing the Hin­du “karmic oblig­a­tion” to “feed a thou­sand souls.” Kōlams have also become an object of gen­uine inter­est for math­e­mati­cians and com­put­er sci­en­tists due to their recur­sive nature: “They start out small, but can be built out by con­tin­u­ing to enlarge the same sub­pat­tern, cre­at­ing a com­plex over­all design,” Cha­ki writes. “This has fas­ci­nat­ed math­e­mati­cians, because the pat­terns elu­ci­date fun­da­men­tal math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples.”

“Kolam” by resakse is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Like any tra­di­tion­al art form, the kōlam does­n’t have quite as many prac­ti­tion­ers as it used to, much less prac­ti­tion­ers who can meet the stan­dard of mas­tery of com­plet­ing an entire work with­out once stand­ing up or even lift­ing their hand. But even so, the kōlam is hard­ly on the brink of dying out: you can see a few of their cre­ators in action in the video at the top of the post, and the age of social media has offered kōlam cre­ators of any age — and now even the occa­sion­al man — the kind of expo­sure that even the busiest front door could nev­er match. Some who get into kōlams in the 21st cen­tu­ry may want to cre­ate ones that show ever more com­plex­i­ty of geom­e­try and depth of ref­er­ence, but the best among them won’t for­get the mean­ing, accord­ing to Cha­ki, of the for­m’s very name: beau­ty.

Read more about kōlams at Atlas Obscu­ra.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Math­e­mat­ics Made Vis­i­ble: The Extra­or­di­nary Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

New Iran­ian Video Game, Engare, Explores the Ele­gant Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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