CHENNAI:I feel more at home here (south India) than in France. I think my soul developed in this culture,” says artist Chantal Jumel, as we meet her on a sunny afternoon at Apparao Galleries. She does look every bit at home, sporting a bright green kurti and red bindi. As we begin to chat with her, she explains extracts from Sangam literature in detail and the deeper nuances of the Kerala art ritual of kalamezhuthu. She has lived here, on and off, for the past 40 years ever since she came to learn ‘kathakali’ in Kerala.
“When I witnessed and learned about kalamezhuthu and kolams during my stay in Kerala, I was so intrigued by these bhoomi chithras (floor painting art) that I went around gathering drawings and documenting its different forms across India. There’s ‘mandana’ in Rajasthan, ‘alpana’ in Bengal — the common basis being the powder or maavu used to draw on the floor,” she explains, as we walk around the gallery, stopping once in a while to admire her intricate penmanship. One particular artwork — a red pen and ink work, in the form of repeated kolams, some intact and some unweaving from the form — seeks our attention. The title reads ‘Life path - 4’. “I use the language of kolam to express the inner landscapes of my own life path — the tying-untying of kolam lines, broken here and there by patches to represent scars etc.,” she narrates. She goes on to explain that in this particular artwork, she used a siku kolam which is different from the pulli kolam as the lines don’t join the dots but rather run around them.
This is Chantal’s second exhibition of her signature artworks. This time they depict imaginary landscapes from Sangam literature, and from her life. Only when we step closer to observe the intricacy of the artwork do we realise that the kolam ‘lines’ are actually formed of small ‘Om’ symbols successively drawn close to each other. “I love calligraphy, and wanted to use a symbol in my artwork. Though in France we have a tradition of calligraphy, I felt it was too middle-aged and I had no feeling for it. Being in Kerala for a long while, I thought of using Malayalam aksharas, but it didn’t work out because calligraphy needs verticals and horizontals. So I ended up using the ‘Om’ symbol, which my Sanskrit teacher told me is the rani akshara as it contains all the aksharas of the world,” she explains.
We notice that the ‘Om’ symbols are unique in certain paintings — like one ‘Sangam’ artwork in which the tail of the ‘Om’ is elongated to resemble a raindrop. “The challenge was to use one akshara, shades of one colour — ‘sanguine’, and bring out various emotions and landscapes, and I loved the meditative feeling of the repetitive process,” she says. Each artwork takes two-three weeks to complete, and she only uses sanguine pens in various ink levels as each one has a different shade.
Other series on display are the ‘Sangam’ series, which she has read translations of, by AK Ramanujan and ML Thangappa; and ‘Bhu-devi’ series, which show how connected we are, yet disconnected with nature. “All of us in the universe are part of the bhoomi, not separate — be it an ant, tree or human. And that’s why we need to look after it,” she smiles, further clarifying that her artwork is not religious or consciously spiritual. “How can one escape spirituality in India,” she laughs.
Many feathers on her cap
Chantal Jumel is a freelance researcher, traveller and writer, and specialises in Indian visual and performing art. She considers herself more of a writer than an artist and describes her artworks as ‘visual poetry’. She has also written two books on the art of ‘kolam’. To see more of her works, visit
Chantal Jumel’s exhibition ‘Inner Landscapes’ is on display at Apparao Galleries, Wallace Garden, till Mar 15. For details call: 28332226