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Pongal is a time for grand kolams – as it is for any Tamil festival. The intricate art using rice flour deftly laid down on the ground in front of homes by the expert hands of women gives sanctity to the spot where they are drawn. As we know, the beautiful ‘drawings’ are a welcoming sign, especially to the Goddess Lakshmi who is believed to bring wealth and prosperity. Which is why people think twice about stepping on a kolam.

The daily morning ritual of a solitary woman has become a popular community activity in recent times at organized fetes and cultural events. The kolam competition is among the main draws of the popular Mylapore festival in Chennai.

Peacock Kolam

Taking this concept further, residents of a neighborhood in Chennai recently hit upon the idea of using kolams to keep their locality clean. Kolam Kondattam, an initiative led by Ramamani Jayaraman and Usha Kumari, has spurred interest in the residents to keep their street in KB Nagar, Adyar clean.

A competition for the best kolam was held for two consecutive years before the pandemic. Adults and children alike, including residents of the nearby Rukmini Nagar Housing Board tenement community, participated enthusiastically in the competition. Car parking was moved to one side of the street so that the other side could be set apart for the kolams. Everyone cooperated and the residents pooled in money to give away as prizes. Not to be left out, the men pitched in, too.

After this kolam competition, we have seen a change in people’s behavior. Many of them say hello and stop to talk. A community feeling is there now. This is just a start. We are waiting for the pandemic to get over so that we can organize other events.

The judges for the competition were residents Jayashree Kannan and Prema Vadagunathan, who are both kolam enthusiasts who teach enthusiasts the art of drawing kolams.

The first prize was bagged by Alamelu, the local vegetable vendor’s wife.

Growing up in Tirunelveli town, Alamelu had been fascinated by the kolams in her locality. She would make tweaks to the designs she saw and draw them in front of her house. To feed her interest, Alamelu then began buying books on kolam designs to pick up new patterns. She says she then went on to compete in and win prizes in kolam competitions during Pongal in her hometown as well as at the Mylapore festival a few years ago.

Social media kolam

Alamelu doesn’t repeat her designs. Her inspiration comes from YouTube videos now. She practises the night before and draws the kolams in front of her house/shop in the morning. She then posts photographs of her creations on the kolam WhatsApp group Varnajalam set up by folks in her neighborhood.

Alamelu doesn’t repeat her designs. Her inspiration comes from YouTube videos now. She practises the night before and draws the kolams in front of her house/shop in the morning. She then posts photographs of her creations on the kolam WhatsApp group Varnajalam set up by folks in her neighborhood.

Her WhatsApp posts are up at 7am every day, which serve as a sort of auspicious image for group members to wake up to. Morning walkers too routinely stop by Alamelu’s shop to admire her kolam of the day. Her daughter chips in too, adding color to the usually white rice flour patterns.

Prze and Judges Kolam

Alamelu’s endeavors as well as the efforts of other kolam makers in their street have led not only to more awareness among the residents about the need to keep the streets clean but have also fostered a sense of community. “After this event we have seen a change in people’s behavior,” says Ramamani. “Many of them say hello and stop to talk. A community feeling is there now. This is just a start. We are waiting for the pandemic to get over so that we can organize other events.”

Perhaps we can expect more positive and progressive changes all around if more neighborhoods took inspiration.


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