Kolam and impermanence, nationalism and tolerance on display

This is a travel story about what I learned from an art competition in Puducherry. It was a humid morning where I saw impermanence and tolerance on display, along with Hindu pride and nationalism.

Kolam is a traditional art form in Southern India. It originally featured geometric patterns drawn with white chalk or rice flour by women on the ground outside their homes. The designs are believed to bring prosperity and good luck.

In modern times, kolams feature gods, birds, flowers, etc. — often in a geometric arrangement in colors as vibrant as India Herself.

Kolams also serve as reminders about the universal law of impermanence. Traffic, pedestrians, animals, insects, and elements erase the powdered artwork, so the drawings must be redone every day. But it’s deeper than that: impermanence teaches acceptance of change and detachment from material attachments.

Every day I see the neighborhood women outside their homes in our temporary slow travel neighborhood, working on their designs. First they sweep the area, then douse water on it. Wet pavement holds the dry powder to make it last a bit longer.

One day, most of the women were absent, the previous day’s designs faded and abandoned. When I got to the pedestrian-only ‘beach road’ where I normally jog, I saw why: there was a big competition on that street.

They had from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. to create their artwork for the judges. I got in some exercise, and then returned at 7 to see the finished results. One design really caught my eye and I watched as the artist finished laying down the last bit of powder just as the announcer said ‘time’s up’!

Her kolam was my favorite bet for first place. I told her she would win. She smiled and thanked me.

I raced back to our Airbnb to get Mom Diane for the winning announcements. I figured she’s appreciate the display and competition just as much.

We wandered up and down the road to look at hundreds of entries. An organizer told me there were 1,000 entries. We met some sisters with art entries side by side, mothers and daughters right next to each other, while the occasional supportive husband lingered in sparsely shaded sidelines.

Mom Diane and I both had our favorites – for design, for theme, for talent. However, after looking at all of the entries, I still believed the design I saw finished right at 7 a.m. would win the judges’ hearts. Some of the judges are pictured above in the last photo – they are Hindu women dressed in traditional garb.

We had tea and waited for the winning announcements as bands and singers kept everyone entertained. Eventually, two hours later, politicians arrived and ascended onto the stage. It was time for the big reveal.

Can you guess which one came in first place? Second? Third? (Tap/click any image on this post to enlarge.)

I do not know the criteria for the judges. I do know there were ten different categories, which might explain why there were geometric patterns, birds, nationalist themes, etc.

First place won a smart TV. Second place, a washing machine. Third place, a refrigerator. These are great prizes for the women from modest homes who we met on this day.

Well, the woman with the design I said would win, did indeed win! She came in first place. And she asked me to take a picture with her in front of her new smart TV.

Hers was the Ganesh design. Ganesh is one of the most worshiped Hindu gods. As soon as I saw it – it screamed “HINDU INDIA” to me. And to the judges, too, apparently.

The second and third place winners are pictured below, respectively. These images are more traditional kolams with predominant geometric designs. Note another variation of Ganesh in the second place kolam.

Kolam, also called rangoli in other areas of India, is a way for women to reflect their values and beliefs. While creating the art, some women pray and meditate. It’s also a way for women to connect to each other and their cultural roots.

Hindu is the overwhelming majority in India. It is a ‘Hindu First’ mentality for a vast majority of Indian citizens. This is, of course, partly why I thought the Ganesh design would win.

I learned a lot on this day, and I appreciate what this kolam competition showed me on many levels.

Mom Diane and I have different favorites for artistic design, shown below left and right, respectively.

*We shared a favorite kolam for theme — the one that expressed tolerance, pictured below.

The creator was a lovely woman who was was delighted to talk with us about her concept. We appreciate her art and values. Art imitates life.

If only more people all over the world were more tolerant of others and their differences…

Thanks for reading, “Kolam and impermanence, nationalism and tolerance on display.”

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