A Workshop Exploring Indian Floor Patterns
All over India, there are enduring traditions of women decorating the threshold of their homes with decorative patterns. Known by different names in various communities, they are called kolam in Tamil Nadu. Women create them every day with rice paste or powder, and by nightfall, they are usually gone. Once, while talking to the Gond artist Bhajju Shyam about the tradition of floor patterns in his community – known as Digna – we were astonished by his reverence for this ephemeral art. Bhajju felt that Gond art evolved from these patterns on the floors and walls – that they were, so to speak, the basic alphabet of folk art. Struck by this, we wanted to explore further, and decided to invite women from four different regions for a workshop on floor patterns.
Kolams from Tamil Nadu were represented by Selvi and Jayashree from Chennai. They were joined by Sunita from Rajasthan’s Meena tribe who created Mandanas. Sarla Devi from Madhubani in Bihar was an expert on Aripanas, while the Gond group from Madhya Pradesh – Deepa, Rupa, Sunita and Shakuntala – came up with Dignas.
Here Chennai-based performer, writer and activist Aniruddhan Vasudevan – who was part of workshop – shares his thoughts about this creative process:
I survive on a reputation for being a jack of a few trades – performing, writing, documenting, etc. In such a freelance existence, it is not every day that an assignment comes by that is at once nourishing in its content as well as validating of my work in terms of who commissions it. So I was exhilarated when Tara Books invited me to work with them during and after an arts workshop that they organised in Chennai. I was delighted to be given a chance to be part of this workshop where artists from four different parts of India shared the traditional art that they create on the floors and walls of their domestic and community spaces.
Besides helping with impromptu translations between Hindi, Tamil and English, I was expected to do a comprehensive report on the workshop. In short, my brief was to chat in various languages I am (more or less!) familiar with, and to write. Who wouldn’t love an assignment like that?
Kolams have always fascinated me, but I have never really drawn them on the ground myself. The back pages of my school workbooks had to bear my several attempts at getting kolams right. After facing taunts and jibes from some of the other boys, I decided that it was enough that my dancing kept me away from them and made me a butt of ridicule; I didn’t need one more “femme” thing to set me apart from the others. So I think that the little boy who suppressed his fascination for kolams several years ago surfaced during this workshop.
Watching Selvi’s hand take possession of her piece of ground is a lesson in the art of clearing one’s space, making it one’s own, beautifying it and leaving, perhaps forever, the mark of one’s having been there. Selvi’s hand moved so fast that I wondered if it was motivated by the desire to finish the work while the space was hers. For in the order of impermanence of things, losing one’s claim to a space ranks foremost, doesn’t it?
In utter contrast to Selvi’s quick and complete possession of her space was Sarla Devi’s apparent confidence in her claim to the space she worked with; she worked slowly, with no sense of rush, and was not flustered by the speed at which the other artists were finishing their drawings. I might be reading too much into things if I attribute this quiet confidence to her location in the social hierarchy – a Brahmin woman from Madhubani, Bihar; a practitioner of the Brahmin style of Arepana art. Her slowness could have been due to her age and the fact that she was working on paper or plywood, but the kinesthetics of her work also suggested a certain approach to space and ownership.
The Gond artists were a perfect example of those who can close the door upon the world while they are working. Happy to indulge us in chatter at any other time, they shut us out with their complete focus when they made their dignas on sheets of paper. Here, too, there was a distinct approach to space. Digna is done on the borders of a four-cornered space. The designs might proceed symmetrically towards the centre, but they do not occupy the central space. On the floor, the centre is for objects of worship, while in the walls, images of the natural world assume centrality. Abstraction is always a fringe phenomenon, I suppose. Their work problematized (I thought I could finish at least one article without using this word, but, sigh…) our notions of centre and periphery and their relative importance and power. Digna might be done on the margins, but it is not marginal. It is more productive to think of Digna work as constituting a frame that holds things together, the centre included.
It was exciting to see the new kinds of work produced by Gond artists from Madhya Pradesh. Internationally acclaimed Bhajju Shyam’s recent work on canvas has pushed the boundaries of digna work by including a narrative in the middle. But while doing so, Bhajju has also accomplished a cross between narrative and representational art, since the narrative in the middle is also representational in that it comprises of images from the natural world ordered in a certain way to create a narrative.
Sunita’s way of creating Rajasthani Meena art was characterized by such precision that her drawings could be developed right away into frames for screen-printing. With her husband Prabhat’s theorizing and his illuminating details about the art, watching Sunita at work became a composite experience. When she worked, she pored over her space with great care and concern, and was very particular about symmetry. This was in striking contrast to the way Selvi worked: literally straddling her kolam, not particularly aiming for symmetric precision, and absolutely nonchalant about extending her drawing beyond the borders of her space!
Another thing that struck me as fascinating was the artists’ relationship to the ground they were working on. I think that it is in this respect that their work on the floor differed significantly from their work on the walls. While drawing on the walls, they are at odds with the force of gravity. There is a concern about making sure the material does not drip and mar the patterns. But watching them working on the ground/ floor/ earth, it felt like their work and their bodies were making a very specific relationship to the force of gravitation. For one, since the Kolam, Meena and Madhubani artists had a a way of using the tip of their fingers to release the painting material squeezed from a piece of cloth held in the palm of their hands, it appeared as if their connection to the ground did not end at their finger tips, that they were marking their relationship to the ground in some very definitive way by letting the earth/ paper/ floor hold the pattern in place. It might sound like a simple and obvious thing to say, but was nevertheless fascinating.
All of this made me wonder how successfully can we record, document, analyse and process a knowledge which is predominantly an embodied practice, using the language of words? While it is wonderful that the artists are able and willing to verbally share with us their experience and knowledge, how do we engage in that process without making them feel the pressure to be verbally articulate? We see them at work, we see their bodies working in various ways: Selvi straddles her kolams; Jayashri pores over her work and is not satisfied until it looks like a computer print-out; Sarla Devi sits leaning over one leg and with the other knee bent – a very conventional posture prescribed to women; the Gond artists move around their sheets of paper, drawing the digna over the borders first and slowly zoning in to the middle of their space, refusing – in so many words – to talk to us while they are at work. I may not be abreast with the newest modes of theorizing embodied practices, but I feel we are still working with limited tools when it comes to talking about the body and its practices, especially when they are not in the form of performance art but are embedded differently among everyday movements.
Juxtaposing these four different kinds of work in the courtyard at Spaces in Besant Nagar, Chennai, was a brilliant idea. It was very important that we laid these different forms alongside one another and found a panoramic view of them. I could get this view only by climbing up to one of the lower branches of a nearby neem tree. What was happening on the ground was not a competition, nor was it a naïve confluence of traditions. They were simply being laid alongside each other. Sometimes that’s the best way to share a space – to just be alongside one another.
Selvi, a domestic worker whose kolams always refused to remain within the borders provided, was a remarkable and very spirited woman. Tragically, she passed away earlier this month. As a small remembrance of Selvi’s vitality and great enthusiasm for the Kolam form, we would like to dedicate this blog to her.
Photos and video by Jonathan Yamakami and Andrea Anastasio