Kolam: A Living Art of South Asia
by Sandra L. Kowalczyk

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Printable version of the lesson



Grades 6-8

Suggested Curriculum Areas
Language Arts/Reading
Social Studies

. Exploring the ritual art of kolam/understanding kolam in context.
. Developing ideas in visual arts and writing.
. Designing and creating patterns to reflect the local environment.
. Pairing works of fiction and nonfiction on same topic.


Background information for teachers

Lesson Outline

Students will read the short story, “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands” by Santhini Govindan and view a slide show of photo images interspersed with the text to learn of the art form of Kolam. Read and reflect upon a nonfiction essay, Kolam: A Living Art of South India; and participate in a hands-on literature extension arts activity, Working with Kolam Patterns.


  • Vocabulary/Background building activity
  • Before/During/After Reading activities for nonfiction short story
  • Reading nonficion essay/ notetaking /reflective writing
  • Hands-on literature extension art activity
  • Studio Art Project / Canvas floor cloths

Vocabulary/Background Building Activity:

Prior to Reading/ Vocabulary Building Activity Many students may have very limited background experiences with the culture of South India. Use a word sorts activity to build background knowledge and create an understanding of vocabulary directly related to the text before reading “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands”.

Students will discuss new vocabulary to identify the meaning and properties of each word and then "sort"the list into collections of words with similar features. This "sorting" process links students' prior knowledge to the basic vocabulary of a reading selection and motivates the learning of new concepts.

Steps to a Word Sort:

1. Create sets of index cards individually listing the following words from “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands”: Chennai, melodious, saree, kumkum, turmoil, idlis, elephants, sambhar, mangoes, stars, peacocks, geometric shapes, visualized, Pongal, threshold, Diwali, Goddess Mahalaxmi, complicated, Hindu. Pre-teach the meanings of unfamiliar words.

2. Divide the class into small groups of 4 or 5 students and distribute a set of index cards to each group.

3. Instruct the student teams to look over the words and suggest possible categories for organizing the words, as they will "sort" the list into collections of words with similar features. (proper nouns, adjectives, things you would see in a zoo, words they have never seen before, things you eat, places, etc.)

4. Allow 10 to 15 minutes for the student teams to create categories based how the words are related and work together discussing and sorting the words into groups. They may need to "predict" meanings for the unfamiliar words. Instruct students to be prepared explain why they choose to group words together.

5. Tell students that all of the words are found in the story they are going to read, "Meenakshi’s Magic Hands". Based on the vocabulary presented, have them predict what they think the story will be about. Have each group generate a gist statement that depicts a possible scenario that that will occur in the story.

6. Conduct a class discussion with each group presenting their word list for one of the categories. Require the students to defend their sorting of terms by asking about the common features of the categories and how each specific word meets these criteria. Ask each group to identify the words that were unfamiliar. Have each group share their prediction of what they think the story will be about.

Introduce the following vocabulary/concepts from “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands

Chennai (formerly known as Madras) is the fourth largest city in India and the capital of Tamil Nadu. Locate on map of India.

saree (also sari) woman’s clothing of unstitched draped cloth worn throughout India. How to wear a sari

kumkum a red powder (tumeric) worn on the forehead and hair part as a symbol of marital status.

idlis a type of steamed rice flour cakes and sambhar a lentil curry sauce. Popular in South India as a snack or a meal.
For photograph & recipe see http://www.cuisinecuisine.com/IdliSambhar.htm

Pongal a three day festival celebrated in South India during which thanks is given for the rice and sugarcane harvest and the earth it is grown in, the oxen who assist the farmers in growing the crop, and the sun which gives life to the rice.

The name pongal means “boiling over” and also refers to a special sweet milk and rice porridge eaten at the festival. While cooking, the pongal is allowed to boil over and spill out of the pot.


Deepavali (also Diwali or Divali) Festival of Lights, one of the most popular festivals for Hindus lasting five days. See The Story of Diwali at http://www.pitara.com/magazine/features/115.htm

Goddess Mahalaxmi (Also Lakshmi) Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune. During Diwali Hindus welcome her into their homes in hopes that she brings happiness and wealth. Year round, the drawing of beautiful kolam patterns in doorways serve as an invite for Lakshmi.

  • Hinduism is the world's third-largest religion, after Christianity and Islam
  • Today there are about 650 million Hindus worldwide.
  • The majority of Hindus live in India, where the religion was born.
  • One in every seven people in the world is a Hindu living in India.
  • There are also significant Hindu populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan, and smaller groups in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Fiji, Africa, Europe, Canada, and the United States.
  • About three-quarters of a million Hindus live and work in the United States. While Hindus in each region have altered their religion to suit the needs of the surrounding culture, all Hindus share a common set of traditions.
  • Hinduism was not founded by one individual. Rather, it is a fusion of many religious beliefs and philosophical schools. Accordingly, Hinduism is said to be a religion of a million and one gods.
    Facts About Hinduism from Smithsonian Institution's Educational website: Puja Guide for Educators

Background for students:

Display map of India. Explain to students that they will be learning about the art of kolam, an art form practiced by Hindu woman throughout India, but is known by different names in different areas: sanjhi, in Uttar Pradesh, alpana in Bengal, mandana in Rajasthan, chaukpurna in Madhya Pradesh, rangoli in Maharashtra and Karnataka, muggulu in Andhra Pradesh, and puvidal in Kerala.


Display photograph images of kolam and kolam making that accompany this unit.
Additional images may be found at http://www.kamat.org/picSearch.asp?search=rangoli&PageNo=2

Display photographs of women creating kolam. In their sketch/writing journals, have students respond in a 5-minute QuickWrite by describing their first impressions of what they are seeing, noting specific details and generating questions raised by the photos.

Share responses to the artwork through discussion. Record questions raised by the photos, such as, how/why the artwork was being made.

Students will read the short story, “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands” by Santhini Govindan and view the slide show of photo images interspersed with the text to learn of the art form of kolam.

Before Reading: Invite students to share examples of a time an older relative or family friend taught them a new skill. Point out that in the story a granddaughter learns kolam, the art form in the images they have just viewed. Review the questions students raised while viewing the photos, such as, how/why the artwork was being made.

During Reading: Read or have student volunteers read “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands” aloud. As the story is read, view slide show of photo images as indicated by * . Point out that all of the photographs were taken by an American teacher traveling in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the summer of 2003. Although not intended to depict the actual events and characters in the story, these unposed photographs can help them visualise the actions in the story.

After Reading: After the first reading of the story, hand out copies of story and have students reread, individually or in pairs, highlighting the text or notetaking each time one of the questions about kolam is answered or they learn something new about kolam. Review what was learned about kolam from the story.

Follow up by having students read Kolam: A Living Art of South India to learn more about the purposes of kolam in daily and ceremonial life, the role of woman artists, the ways in which kolam patterns are learned, sources of ideas for visual designs, the variety of materials used, and the various processes for creating kolam.

Journal Response: What was confirmed or added to your initial impressions about kolam? What have you learned about kolam? What are examples of other art forms that are created at special times of year or for special occasions. Can you name other examples of ephemeral (lasting a short time) art?

Extension: Discuss and display photos of kolam along with other examples of artwork created which may not last a long time, such as sand paintings, sidewalk chalk drawings, ice sculptures, vegetable sculptures, cake decorating, face painting, mehendhi , etc.

Cross references to other themes: South Indian Festivals; Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
Assessment ideas Students will be evaluated based on completion of journal, participation in class discussion, written responses, and participation in activities.

Additional readings for teachers and students:

Painted Prayers: Women’s Art in Village India. Photos and text by Stephen Huyler Ganeri, Anita. Hindu Festivals throughout the Year. North Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media, 2003.

Introduces the main religious festivals of Hinduism, telling the story behind each festival, describing how it is celebrated around the world, and providing instructions for relate activities.

Computer generated symmetrical kolam patterns



Extension Activities

Have students perform the opening scene or read together as Readers Theatre.

Rice Boy a play by Sunil Kuruvilla
In front of a house in India, sixteen-year-old Tina learns the ancient art of kolam, the creation of elaborate patterns with rice powder, from her great-grandmother, in preparation for her marriage to a man she has never met. Meanwhile, in front of a house in Canada, Tina’s cousin, Tommy, sits in a tree, trying to make sense of his heritage.

Other grade levels: This series of lessons can be adapted for use with upper elementary and high school classrooms.

Other discipline areas: foreign cultures; global education; multicultural arts; mathematics, perform transformations on two-dimensional figures to create kolam patterns and describe and analyze the effects of the transformations on the figures.

Special needs students:
Provide support as needed

Connections to Standards:
English Language Arts

A.8.1 Use effective reading strategies to achieve their purposes in reading.
A.8.3 Read and discuss literary and nonliterary texts in order to understand human experience.
A.8.4 Read to acquire information.
B.8.1 Create or produce writing to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
C.8.3 Participate effectively in discussion.
D.8.1 Develop their vocabulary and ability to use words, phrases, idioms, and various grammatical structures as a means of improving communication.

Social Studies

E.8.3 Describe the ways in which local, regional, and ethnic cultures may influence the everyday lives of people.
E.8.10 Explain how language, art, music, beliefs, and other components of culture can further global understanding or cause misunderstanding.
E.8.14 Select examples of artistic expressions from several different cultures for the purpose of comparing and contrasting the beliefs expressed.

D.8.4 Understand basic concepts in art, such as “form follows function,” “destruction of the box,” “less is more,” balance, symmetry, integrity, authenticity, and originality
E.8.5 Use the visual arts to express ideas that can't be expressed by words alone
G.8.1 Know that visual images are important tools for thinking and communicating
I.8.5 Understand that art reflects the time and place in which it was created
I.8.6 Understand how creating or looking at art brings out feelings
I.8.7 Work independently and collaboratively to produce ideas and works of art
J.8.3 Learn ways different cultures think about art
K.8.1 Connect their knowledge and skills in art to other areas, such as the humanities, sciences, social studies, and technology
J.8.10 Develop the ability to reflect and talk about works of art

Although “Meenakshi’s Magic Hands” is a work of fiction, many women in South India create kolam and teach this art form to their daughters, who in turn teach their daughters. To enhance the retelling of this story, display the photograph slide show provided at points indicated by *.

Point out that the photos, taken by an American teacher traveling in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the summer of 2003, are not intended to depict the actual events and characters in the story, but to help them visualize the actions in the story.


Kolam: A Living Art of South India
by Sandra L. Kowalczyk

Throughout India women create intricate designs on the ground in front of their homes by drizzling rice flour or rice paste through their fingertips. Known rangoli in the western Indian states of Mahrashtra, Gujarat, Rajastan, by other names in different parts of India, it is called kolam in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala.

Kolam is considered an important form of artistic expression for woman. Young girls learn to create kolam from their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. Early mornings and evenings you may spot a woman, using a broom made from bundles of plant fibers, to sweep clean the area directly in front of her home. Using her hand, she sprinkles water from a vessal until the whole area is throughly dampened. The dampness helps the design stay in place. From a small container holding dry, coarse ground rice flour, she deftly uses her thumb and forefinger to control a steady flow of flour as she plots out a pattern.

Kolams are created throughout the year to make the entrances to homes and businesses more beautiful and serve as “welcome mats” to visitors. A kolam is a symbol to welcome Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Wealth, into peoples' homes. Woman "draw" kolams throughout the year, making special designs on days of festivals, such as Pongol and Diwali, and to mark special occasions, such as marriages, and temple chariot processions. Consistent with Hindu tradition of being kind to all gods’ creatures, the beautiful patterns created with rice flour also provide nourishment to ants and other insects, birds, and rodents. Kolam a is an example of an ephemeral art, meaning it's not meant to last a long time, but is worn away by the motion of feet passing over it.

There are literally hundreds of traditional kolam designs, each with unique features. A "pulli" style kolam begins with a grid of dots flour dots or "pullis" on the ground in a grid formation. A single uninterupted intertwining line is "drawn" that curves around the dots and creates intricate designs. Lines should be continual with no gaps left for evil spirits to enter. Kolam is a mathematical type of art with fixed rules that result in intriguing patterns using line, dots, circles, squares, triangles. Other types of kolam are drawn freehand with nature often serving as inspirations for designs: peacocks; swans; leaves, trees, flowers, such as the multipetalled lotus; fruits, such as mangoes, conch shells, and so on. In addition to white rice flour and rice paste, a variety of materials can be used to create multicolored kolams, such as, ground marble or quartz, colored powders or chalks, colored sand, brightly colored spices, leaves, and flowers.

Today you can find design books to help you create designs. Metal tins with pre-punched holes can be bought at the marketplace to use as templates. Hollow tubes with holes drilled through them in, when filled with rice flour or powdered chalk can be rolled to create intricate repeated border patterns. Busy woman might buy kolam stickers to place in doorways or paint a permanent kolam design in doorway. Fortunately there remain woman in villages and cities throughout South India who continue the kolam tradition, as it was taught by their mothers and grandmothers, creating ephemeral art anew each day.

Focus/Discussion questions / Suggestions for further research:

What are the purposes of kolam in daily and ceremonial life?

Describe the role of woman artists?

How are kolam patterns learned?

What are the sources of ideas for kolam designs.

How does a particular design travel from one area to another?

What materials are used to make kolam?

Describe the various processes for creating kolam.

What symbols can you identify that have special meaning?

Can you name other examples of ephemeral (lasting a short time) art? (snowmen and woman, sand paintings, sidewalk chalk drawings, ice sculptures, vegetable sculptures, cake decorating, face painting, mehendhi, etc.)

Learn more about kolam as practised in other areas of India and known by different names : sanjhi, in Uttar Pradesh, alpana in Bengal, mandana in Rajasthan, chaukpurna in Madhya Pradesh, rangoli in Maharashtra and Karnataka, muggulu in Andhra Pradesh, and puvidal in Kerala.


Working with Kolam Patterns
Hands-on Activity

Visit this site for an animated sequence of drawing a kolam. http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/rangoli/rangani.htm

Also click on "lots more patterns" for connected page: http://www.kamat.org/picsearch.asp?search=rangoli

Computer generated symmetrical kolam patterns http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/1863/gen.html

A "pulli" style kolam begins with a grid of dots. You can practice the steps first with paper and pencil as it is important to make an evenly placed grid. Here is how to make an easy 4 row grid to get you started:
- Begin by drawing one dot which will be row one. Below that form row two by drawing three dots with the center dot directly below the dot in row one. For row three, draw two dots each one below the spaces of the dots you made in row two. Row four is made by repeating row two. (figure 1) Now draw one continuous line by starting at the top and following the direction of the arrows to make your pattern. (figure 2)
Here are other designs you can try (figures 3 and 4) Provide preprinted grids and allow students to experiment with reproducing and creating their own designs.

Experiment with freehand patterns, materials, and colors. Try creating a metal template that you can use and reuse. After creating a pattern on paper, tape it to the bottom of an disposable aluminum pie tin. Use a large needle to punch a series of holes along the lines of your design. Use a misting spray bottle to dampen a flat surface outdoors or on a piece of cardboard indoors. Place tin on surface and fill with a thin layer flour or white or colored chalk. (Rubbing chalk against sand paper creates a powder) Gently lift aluminum pan and place to side ans repeat. Add more flour/chalk powder as needed. Voila! An instant kolam.
Now it's time to practice free hand. Use rice flour or substitute other types of flour, ground corn meal, or ground up chalk Before drawing a kolam, the ground needs to be swept clean of sand, pebbles or other debris. Next, sprinkle the ground with water so the pattern stays in place. If practicing indoors, spread out cardboard on surface of floor. Use a spray bottle to cover surface with mist of water. Take small amounts of flour in your hand and slowly drizzle between your thumb and index finger as you create your design. The design should be continuous unbroken lines when completed. If you make a “mistake”, simply incorporate it into your pattern, as there is no one right way to create a kolam. Keep practicing until your designs please you.
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