Kolam: An Essay in Flour

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Kolams are typically made in front of the home. After preparing the ground, sweeping, leveling and dampening so the flour will set and hold better, the woman of the house creates the kolam every day at dawn. Every day. It is sacred, but not static, being wholly subject to weather, rain, wind, and foot traffic. It is an inviting source of food for insects or birds-and deliberately so. Its layered expression is infinitely variable, beautiful, colorful, inspiring, and dramatic…and a lesson in transience.

A kolam might be considered an essay or a poem, a snapshot generating numberless words, an affirmation of harmony, a humble renewal of interconnectedness. It’s a wish and a blessing-changing daily-an altar at which one might contemplate the present moment. Although its borders are defined, it expresses the nature of relationship of everything with everything. Can writing even be equal to a kolam? That question is like asking whether reading a book about modern art is equivalent to walking through a modern art museum: one is a two-dimensional and time-limited artifact; the other, immediate in four dimensions, engaging all your senses, blowing apart your default assumptions about time and space. 

Even though it may be ancient, a kolam, like much of modern art, moves–even while standing still. It skitters through time, culture, rousting sleeping archetypes, connecting past and future, uniting the inside and the outside in timeless postures. It’s often a passageway into deep pictures; evocative, visceral, full of the imagery of one’s personal and tribal or even ancestral history. Unlike a traditional essay, linear, limited by thought, convention, language, having no prescribed ritual of creation, being more individualistic in its place-making, a kolam, through the prescribed ritual of materials, is a more democratic and inclusive expression of an individual or a collective place in time. How could the two be considered equal?

The economy of a written essay is restricted to conveying knowledge by acquaintance. The terms of exchange are limited. In any of its traditional forms, it cannot include a transmission of direct experience. A kolam is not an essay in that sense as it conveys knowledge more directly, connecting the creator to a stream of historical knowledge as well as creating new knowledge in that direct experience. And like any other art object, it’s open to infinite interpretation.

So much is contained within even one photo of a kolam. I don’t believe I’ve written anything that compares to it, other than possibly poetry, taking far fewer words than what is thought of as essay. My essay might describe most everything that a single picture conveys, but it would be doing so in a far less compelling medium, one that might well give words to adolescent simplicity or even practiced adult elegance, like the communal journey of a single kolam. But I don’t recall ever approaching with words what a single image can evoke, a multidimensional direct experience, attracting one’s attention and lighting up multiple centers of conceptual and spiritual response. 

Writing can do that, perhaps. Words cannot truly be distinguished from the writer on any topic, whether the topic be kolam itself, modern art or anything else. Can the act of creating a kolam be distinguished from the maker? Not at all. It is an individualistic expression, yet still infused with the flavors and tangled threads of a long tradition. Is the maker dissolved into the image; or even re-made in its making? Isn’t that the objective, after all? Is a writer ultimately contained, reified within, or disappeared into the after-image of an essay—or is the writing merely an image of the writer—recapitulating the illusion of objectivity? 

The more play there is at the boundaries of each, the more they dissolve. A kolam may itself be an essay, non-linear and made with the intention of dissolution, but if so, it’s a different species of essay. It is an invocation that embodies history, the soul of a culture, the longing of an individual, the connection of a family, the collective imagery of a community seeing and seeking the divine in everything and externalizing the yearning to be reunited with it. It is a visual representation of the integral nature of earth, sky and spirit, not unlike a Buddhist sand mandala.

Can writing become a mandala? A linear process evoking a non-linear experience?  That’s a description of poetry, is it not? A kolam is already such a mandala, in its conception, its making, its conclusion and its ultimate destruction. The symbolism of kolam may not be as complex, but to attempt to convey all of what it is in words risks becoming a sterile derivative of the experience. Can writing become mandala containing the writer, the object of writing, the reader, indistinguishable, in a single flowing fractal as much as an experience of kolam? 

Can a writer become that? Why not? But if such is to be, the act must stretch across boundaries, become pure aspiration, teasing apart in an extended in-breath all the distinct elements and personal images essential to its construction–followed by an out-breath of their ultimate inseparable nature. A successful attempt at such a thing would be immediately apparent, breath-giving and breath-taking.

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