The Kolam Project

One of my projects is a study of the micro-scale evolutionary processes in the traditional Tamil artwork called the kolam.  The ner pulli nelevu kolam is a type of winding knot-like pattern drawn around a matrix of dots.  Women across Tami Nadu draw kolam patterns with rice or chalk powder on their doorsteps in the early morning.  These kolam patterns have many meanings, are linked with progress through a women’s life, the protection and beautification of the household, and are seen as a sort of visual prayer which invites gods into the home, while warding away demons.

I collected a ~20 Kolam repertoire sample of ~300 women across three neighborhoods in urban Kodaikanal. Each women also a survey about her kolam practice, and gave names of other local women she’s learned from, or who have learned from her.  This rich data set includes a social network, and an extensive sample of some 6000 kolam patterns.  I have developed an interactive computer system that allows for the kolam patterns to be digitized, edited and stored.

Analysis of the Kolam patterns will use pattern similarity as a proxy for common cultural inheritance.  The detail and variation of the kolam patterns promises to open up previously inaccessible theoretical questions about the nature of human cultural inheritance to empirical inquiry.  See the sample Kolams below.

Sample Kolams

A Mid-Size Kolam

A Small Kolam

A festival-size Kolam being drawn by a young woman.

Kolam Engine

As part of my research on the evolution of Tamil Kolam patterns, I have created a flexible computer system for designing kolam patterns.  This system allows me and my research team to translate the two dimensional kolam pattern into a sequence of kolam gestures.  Saved kolam files can then be read by computer and the kolam pattern generated and edited.