David Stairs

The central idea of old Indian civilization, or Indo-Aryan culture, was that of, dharma, which was something much more than religion or creed: it was a conception of obligations, of the discharge of one’s duties to oneself and to others. —Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India

Woman on a Pondicherry street

Each morning a new design appears outside my neighbor’s flat. Geometric in nature, often based upon the lotus flower, these designs symbolize the spirit of welcome among India’s Hindus. Often based upon a point grid, this subtle art form is practiced primarily by women and girls.

Known in the north as rangoli and in the south as kolam, the ones I’ve seen are usually just white, sometimes two-color, although they are sometimes brightly colored. Appearing at entrances, gates, or thresholds, they look equally good whether outside an apartment door, or on your neighbor’s sidewalk.

Traditionally they are made with rice powder, ostensibly meant to welcome even the lowliest of creatures, the ants, although I’ve recorded some that are drawn with chalk, or even permanently painted on a sidewalk. Color versions can be made with the gulal or rangoli powder naturally derived from flowers, and many manufacturers, recognizing the negative effects of industrial dyes, stress the non-toxic nature of their products, but one must take care when purchasing.

As with anything, a shortcut exists in the form of stencils through which powder is dusted to leave a pattern or picture. Apparently this option has not yet achieved widespread acceptance. I’ve only seen a few examples used as decorative accompaniment to larger rangolis.

I’ve analyzed some of the patterns and find that the speed with which they are drawn betrays their simple beauty, until you come to a fantastic hexagonal snowflake pattern!

Like many folk art forms, early training and consistent practice make it look like child’s play.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project