My memories from my summer vacations at my grandma’s home in Chennai are of sounds—creaking gates and splashing water. As early as 5 a.m, my grandma would be pouring water on the cement area outside of her gate and sweeping everything clean. She would then begin her yoga session—not on a mat but on the ground. Not wearing yoga pants, but wearing six yards of an Indian sari. And she didn’t call it yoga—she called it drawing kolams.
In one hand, she held a container filled with white rice flour. She would then stand with her feet slightly apart and body bent forward from the hips, a variation of uttana asana. The other hand took flour from the container and, slipping the powder through her fingers, magically drew patterns on the ground. Dots, lines and curves would emerge from those skilled hands and form a magical piece of art in just 20 minutes. She had created a kolam.
I never used those precious morning hours to learn from my grandma, something I’ll regret forever. But amid the stress, fear and isolation of the pandemic and continued lockdowns in India, I decided to finally take up learning to draw kolams for myself.
Understanding the origins of kolams
After months of staying indoors, I’d found my creativity depleted and my focus ebbing away. Meanwhile, I’d seen kolam drawings appearing on my Instagram feed, and came across Mumbai-based kolam artist and Ted-X speaker Hema Kannan, who runs online workshops on kolam drawing. Kannan wrote that kolams are “an art form that brings calm to the storm.” I knew I wanted to finally try this art I’d seen my grandma do so many times as a child.
For the uninitiated, a kolam is a traditional South Indian art form drawn by sprinkling rice flour at doorsteps and outside of one’s house. Every morning, millions of women across the world draw kolams. They’re done for multiple purposes: a welcome sign to the house, a symbol of auspiciousness and as a form of artwork.
The rice flour used to draw patterns (some also use chalk or colored powder) feeds ants, squirrels, and smaller birds such as sparrows, creating a harmonious way of living with nature. Through the day, the drawings get eaten, walked on, washed out in the rain, or blown around in the wind, and new ones are made the next day.
Kolam’s roots go back to ancient Indian beliefs and lifestyle—a key purpose of drawing kolams is to bring exercise to both mind and body. To the modern world, yoga is an ancient Indian tradition. But what often gets lost in translation was the fact that in traditional India, yoga was synchronized smartly into many everyday activities. Back then, setting particular periods of time aside for yoga, as we do so now, was probably a tougher task, considering the lack of automation in daily activities (no microwaves and blenders!)
Learning to draw kolams as yoga
Drawing kolams is one way to stretch the body. The practice involves postures such as malasana (squat) and variations of utkatasana (chair pose) and vajrasana (thunderbolt pose). In the early mornings when kolams are drawn, the breath of fresh air, the stretch as one bends forward to lay the patterns—all benefit the body. The postures might not be classical yoga asanas, but they’re variations that kickstart the body’s blood circulation, improving flexibility and mobility.
The practice is also a way to benefit the mind, by bringing meditative focus to the start of the day. Laying out the dot pattern or lines requires mental math. As I started to educate myself on the different styles of kolam (I was helped by this video by Kolam artist Bhargavi Mani) I was fascinated to learn that mathematics and kolams go hand in hand. The patterns are made with simple dots, lines and curves, but geometry, symmetry and even the Fibonacci series come into play. The focus that I need while drawing these is immense—for the 15 minutes that it takes to do an elaborate kolam (or even the five minutes to so smaller ones) my mind is only on that task. One slip and the design goes for a toss.
In this way, kolam drawing brings together the body and mind—and, the union of body and mind, after all, is the definition of yoga. “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain that direction without any distractions,” explains a verse from The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, from Patanjali’s Yogasutra, “The object can be a concrete one either external to ourselves or part of ourselves. It can be an area of interest, a concept, or something beyond the level of the senses, such as God.”
My grandma’s 20-minute early morning ritual was spent in complete silence, focusing on graceful movements and creating symmetric patterns. As I draw my kolam every day, I often wonder if I’ll ever get to that level of creativity and fluidity.
Then again, while I lose myself in the pattern, my mind becomes calm and clear. The process is cathartic for me. And when I look at the finished product, my kolam-decorated doorstep, I find myself glowing with happiness and pride.
Spending just ten minutes of my morning drawing a kolam, I’ve found I’m able to tap into a hidden positive energy, an inner force within me—one that I can take back to my family and my days. And isn’t “connecting with our inner force” exactly what we look for from our yoga practice?
How to Draw a Kolam
Learning to draw a kolam can seem daunting at first, but there are a slew of books and Instagram pages to help you get started. (And remember, you don’t need to get it right on the first try!)
Step 1: Study up on the different types of kolams, and how to make them. Simple dots, lines and curves make up a kolam. Basic lines making up complex patterns are called Padi kolams. Using lines to connect dots is drawing a Pulli kolam, whereas, getting curved lines to go around the dots is called Sikku kolams—in these you need to have every dot surrounded by lines. For a starter course, try this video by Kolam artist Bhargavi Mani or another video to help here.
Step 2: Get your base materials for creating your kolam. (Traditionally, finely ground rice flour to be sprinkled on concrete or another outdoor surface.) You can also try a different interpretation in using chalk on the sidewalk, or start with pencil and paper on a notebook to practice the patterns.
Step 4: Practice. Use either your notebook, or rice flour or chalk, and try your hand at drawing straight lines, dots and curves. If you’re practicing with flour, hold the flour between your index finger and thumb. Gradually let go of the flour from in between the fingers (like how you would sprinkle salt, just more focused). This technique takes some time to perfect. In most parts of India, a special variety of flour for kolams is now sold—it has added grit in it to give a better flow.
Step 5: Move from your practice area or notebook to the floor. A sidewalk, floor or wooden panels might help the kolam stand out better. This is where the physical part of yoga comes in, bending forward to lay the dots and lines, stretching the arms wide to get the patterns flowing. Let your creativity run wild!