Kolam Diaries and the Language of Om

’Unbound Line That Traverses Elements,’ an exhibition by French artist Chantal Jumel, is inspired from a gamut of topics that range from contemporary issues to Upanishads to the ephemeral kolam...

On the white walls of Apparao Galleries, Chantal Jumel’s huge sketches and framed photographs take you into a maze of Hindu references. There is the Om, the concept of shoonya (zero), which symbolises no beginning or ending and Tamil kolams in all their complexity.  However, the artist quells your unbridled curiosity, saying that Hindu culture is only a symbolic sort of language for her. “As an artist, I am attached to language,” she says.

Using strokes which are an extension of the Om around the human body form influenced by Jainism, Chantal weaves different kinds of stories — the panchabhoota (five elements), freeing the human soul from bondage, contemporary issues of war, and the recent Peshawar massacre.

Chantal, who has spent more than 30 years in India, says that Om is a representative form of the emotions she tries to convey.

“I have seen that some women, especially Brahmin women, who write the Om a number of times and when they complete a book of ‘Oms’, they take it to the temple. It becomes a recitation. I was in Kerala and I learnt to write Malayalam. There, my Sanskrit teacher told me that the mother of old sounds was Om. I use it to extend it into strokes. I give it emotions like we give emotions in dance and theatre. I try to induce some rasa, to convey different things like water,” she adds.

Combining calligraphy and the drawing of deities through syllables in tantric art, calligram tradition of France where images are made with verses, Chantal has created her own style of writing images that narrate stories.

Living in Kottayam in the early 80s, where she trained in Kathakali under Chandramana Govindan Namboothiri and Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Chantal discovered the striking art of kolams. A practice that is common among Tamil Brahmin households, she was drawn towards it and tried to find the Shastra behind something that is created in the morning and vanishes by afternoon.

Presenting a number of photographs of women drawing kolams during the Mylapore Festival, Chantal’s Unbound…looks at the practice that dwells on the beliefs of creation, preservation and destruction. “I realised that it was the Tamil women and not the Malayalee women who draw kolams in the temples there. I wanted to understand the purpose of creating something that is so ephemeral.  I also saw another kind of bhumichitra called kalamezhuthum pattum and was intrigued, prompting me to document them,” she says.

The photographs on display offer a glimpse into the many kinds — sikku kolam, kolams made of a single line and the complex ones with several superimposed figures. “Many of the women who draw these kolams don’t know to count or even write, but then it is amazing to see how they get it right because they do it so often and every day. The patterns are all geometric and there is bodily involvement by the maker,” she says.

Chantal observes that the kolams, which are fast disappearing due to shrinking public spaces, need to be preserved.

“I hope there are kolam classes in design courses and workshops to preserve them. Hinduism is more like practising on yourself. Maybe it is the repetition of something — yoga or the kolam— conferring a permanency. To repeat something is like holding eternity. It is beautiful and I am not aware of any other culture that welcomes the day with such a gesture,” she says.

‘Unbound  Line That Traverses Elements’, is on at Apparao Galleries, Nungambakkam, till February 28.

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The New Indian Express