In southern India, it’s common to see women drawing intricate patterns or kolams every morning just outside their front door.
The kolam is drawn at the threshold of one’s home using rice flour – which serves as food for ants and birds. The purpose of doing so? To attract success, good health and wealth, and ward off evil. Sadly, over the years, the number of people practising this art form has been slowly reducing.
Bucking those trends, a couple from the temple town of Madurai, Tamilnadu, had their home’s compound wall painted with traditional kolams and colourful rangolis.
The couple said they did it to spread awareness about the age-old tradition and provide a livelihood to a struggling artist.
“During the lockdown, I watched a video of a lady painting her home using cow dung and drawing warli designs over it using terracotta and white-coloured paint. This made me wonder if anyone had done something similar with kolams in Madurai, a rich art and culture city. We spoke to a city-based painter whom we were friends with, and even drove around the city looking for such paintings on compound walls,” says Aruna Visesvar (66), who is the founder of Adhyapana CBSE school along with her husband Visesh Aiyer (73).
Finding the artist
Early in September 2020, Aruna was approached by a friend trying to find employment for an underprivileged artist named Elangovan K.
“He had not earned money in six months and was desperate to find a job. Initially, he wanted to know if I required any work done at my school. However, when I asked him to show his drawings, I was impressed with it and decided to hire him and paint kolams at my home in Sathya Sai Nagar,” says Aruna in an interview with The Better India.
On a trial basis, Elangovan, the resident of a nearby village named Malappuram came down to Madurai. Aruna provided him with a kolam design she had printed and asked him to replicate it on the wall. He spent a few hours making a sketch and painting it.
“It was flawless. He did the drawings with one brush stroke, kept his work station clean, and was quick,” says Aruna, adding that they requested Elango to paint one compound wall that spreads across 100 meters in their home. The wall has 20 partitions, and Elango completed 55 drawings within one week.
How did he do it
Elangovan is a native of a village named Malappuram located in the outskirts of Madurai. For the last 25 years, the 54-year-old was involved in painting houses, billboards, temple walls, and signboards. However, he was also good at drawing maps, scenic landscapes, portraits of famous leaders, making him famous among corporation schools in the city.
“I learned the art from my father, who was also a famous painter in my village. He has made murals of gods and goddesses at temples across Madurai. From a young age, I have been practising drawing and painting. But I have never drawn a kolam until last year. The knowledge I have revolves around what I have seen my wife draw,” says Elango, adding that since the nationwide lockdown was announced, he has been struggling to make ends meet.
In August, after Aruna and Visesh had their home white-washed, they added a coating of terracotta-coloured paint. On the road-facing side of the wall, Elango made pencil sketches of designs picked by Aruna and Vishesh. Within one day, he had finished the outlines of the kolams.
“In the next six days, Elango painted 20 large ones surrounded by small ones on four corners. They were done using white paint with single strokes and no overlapping. Inside the compound wall, he made rangoli designs and filled them with various colours which were selected by me,” says Aruna.
Elango made 55 drawings and was paid separate rates for the kolam and the rangoli. After Aruna shared pictures of her home’s new makeover among friends and family members, they appreciated the artist, and some even enquired to hire him.
Vishesh says that Thiagarajar Arts College in Madurai contacted Elangovan to paint a small mural on one of their walls as a test run. He also adds that Elango received enquiries from two people in Bangalore recently. However, the artist declined the offer owing to the pandemic.
For more details or to get in touch with the artist, you can email Aruna and Visesh at email@example.com
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)