"I try to share this ephemeral art form to bring positivity in lives," reads Hema Kannan's bio on her Instagram page The Lotus Shakti. And true to these words, every morning, her posts of kolam and the accompanying caption seem to bring brightness - especially in the current pall of gloom - in the lives of her followers.
"We are surrounded by negativity and fear. The first thing I began to change is when I wake up, I thank god that I am safe and alive. With that positivity, you just have to think of some good ways of spreading good vibes," begins the Mumbai-based kolam artist, who seeks solace in patterned white lines.
Making an expression
Growing up in a south Indian household, Hema was introduced to the art of kolam at a young age. But it was only in 2014 that she picked up the practice, again. "I had a fantastic guru in Rangam Balaji aunty, a family friend. She used to read my kolam. As much as I tried to explain, it was she who told me that I am telling stories through my designs. I then realised that my kolams are a mix of Amar Chitra Katha-kind of illustrations and 3D images. I often leave it to the viewer to interpret the story. When viewers also participate in the kolam-making process, it becomes fun for me," she expains.
But it was the pandemic and consequent lockdowns in 2020 that made her kolams a source of peace for her followers. "A lot of people say that it gives them energy in the morning when they see my kolam, so I began to tap into that. Being at home, people are feeling the stress of the lockdown and maybe claustrophobic even. How do you take that negative energy out? This was the best form to do so. I did some exercises where I told followers to twin kolams with me or play a game of kolam or kolam antakshari. That’s how I started connecting with people. Now, I also conduct online workshops," she details.
Kolams have an innate quality to drift you from unpleasant thoughts and allow you to focus on just the act of drawing a kolam, she believes. "In these difficult times, you may not be moving around much, but your mind is constantly moving. So this is an activity to bring your mind to focus on one point. It has made a difference in a lot of people. I talk to every one of my students, help them with their issues to get through their difficulties by bringing in that concentration," explains Hema.
Life lessons in patterns
"Doesn’t it break your heart to erase the intricate kolam?" she's often asked. Her response is filled with sage words. "The art of letting go that’s my biggest takeaway. I make these big kolams for three-four hours. It is a lot of activity, a lot of meditation," she says.
"But in a couple of days, I have to erase it to make way for a new kolam. Isn't that what life is? Unless you destroy or remove something, how will you create something new? This is a cycle of recreation. It was easy for me to let go of these patterns. And now, when someone says rude or unpleasant things, I can easily let it go. When I cannot hold on to my art something I create why should I hold on to something that is created by somebody else?" she offers.
Besides instilling the virtue of patience in Hema, kolams have given her a reason to celebrate life. A spontaneous artist, Hema starts with a pattern and amplifies the design, going with the flow of how her inner voice guides her.
She is often seen making traditional Tamil kolams like chikku kolam, padi kolam or dot line kolam that involve white lines. It is during special occasions that her kolam-making skills seem to bloom. Take her Navaratri series, for instance. Each day, her kolams celebrate the Goddess in different avatars.
"Navaratri faces came very spontaneously and I never planned a single face for that particular day. That's some divine energy and I won't even take credit for those faces; She wanted to manifest that way and she did," shares Hema humbly.
The deities she draws often do not have a face, as she believes "each one of us have our own interpretation of how the divine is for us". "I'd like them to see what they want to see rather than ask them to see what I want them to see. So I leave a sense of mystery behind which the divine actually is," she believes.
Kolams were encouraged by our grandparents, as it was said to be the food for insects and microorganisms on the ground since the patterns are made using rice flour. It was also seen as a religious expression. But Hema urges people to look at it as an art that can help one mentally, physically and emotionally.
"The energy that comes from drawing these geometrical patterns cannot be measured. It is priceless. When one finishes a kolam, they should feel energised and not tired. Learning the techniques and postures will help with that. I want to make kolam contemporary for this generation so that they don’t write it off as something conventional," she points out.
Hema wishes to take her gift of kolam-making one step further by making it a weekly exercise in schools. "Before the pandemic set in, I wanted to visit local schools and ask them to give me an opportunity to teach the art to students, which can also help them in their studies. But I have taken a step back owing to the pandemic. I am also trying to learn how it can help persons with disabilities and mental health issues. Through my students, I have realised it is therapeutic," she signs off.
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