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Kolam and Country: the art of welcome in modern America

Jet lag roused me long before daybreak. Waiting for my still-sleeping cousins to awaken and play, I wandered toward the veranda of my grandparents' house and enjoyed the brief moments of coolness before the searing summer heat.

There at the entryway knelt my grandmother, skillfully releasing a handful of white rice flour from her fist to the ground — first, making a large grid of dots and then, a series of interweaving lines.

Though I'd seen patterns like these — kolam — on the front doorsteps of Indian homes, I'd never witnessed the drawing process. That morning, I was transfixed by the speed of my grandmother's hands, the precision of the loops and curves, the intricacy of the design emerging under her fingers.

When she finished, she gave me my own handful of rice flour, but only clumps emerged from my small fist. She laughed. Don't worry — we'll teach you.

That day, my cousins presented me with an easier medium (notebook and pen) and taught me a simple kolam — a grid of five dots with one line weaving through them. Though I never graduated to rice flour, I spent hours that summer trying to imitate increasingly complex designs.

When I asked my cousins why these designs were drawn on the doorstep, they told me kolam was intended to welcome guests into our home.

Though this answer explained why they followed the custom, it did not explain why they used rice flour. After all, over the course of the day, the flour dispersed as people walked over it, or as birds and ants snacked on it. By evening, only a faded and smudged shadow of the beautiful design remained.

And the next morning, my grandmother would draw it again.

A Welcome, and More

I learned of the Inauguration Kolam 2021 Project on the morning President Biden took office. By that date, the project organizers had crowdsourced and collected thousands of hand-decorated cardboard tiles in order to lay a 2,500 square foot kolam in front of the U.S. Capitol Building — a tribute to Vice President Kamala Harris' Indian heritage, and also a grand gesture of welcome to the incoming administration and the country at large.

But co-organizer Roopal Shah observed that the project was more than that — that it reflected American democracy itself: a participatory endeavor of many people, all with their own stories, creating a dynamic and vibrant country together. Indeed, the open invitation drew participants of all ages and backgrounds to download the proffered kolam template and, in Shah's words, "fill in the space between with . . . their own identity, positive energy, love and creativity."

The installation of these kolam tiles was delayed, however, due to security concerns following the chilling January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Nevertheless, the second project component went forward on Inauguration Day — a digital mosaic of selfies of people from all cultures and communities holding their own personally decorated kolams, as well as a segment in the virtual inauguration event "America United."

Despite the success of this community endeavor, I found it difficult to forget the reason for the physical installation's postponement. In stark contrast to — and in the same location as — the Kolam Project's proposed gesture of welcome, rioters had disgorged a message of rejection, exclusion, and intimidation.

The Geometry of Life

My Indian-American existence is full of traditional customs — some, thousands of years old — so hard-wired into daily life that I barely notice them. But when I do pay closer attention, many of those customs bloom and unfurl, revealing meaning and significance more sophisticated than I could have imagined.

A kolam, for example, embodies far more than a gesture of welcome.

Starting with a base pattern, a kolam builds and enlarges outward by repeating and magnifying a set of subpatterns. Drawing these recursive layers is an exercise in fractal geometry. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, fascinated by the patterns occurring in nature, first coined the term "fractal" in 1975 to identify and understand the growth and expansion of structures in the natural world — from tree branches to river branches, from snowflakes to lightning strikes.

Since that time, fractals have garnered exponential interest. Fractal geometry is now used to make computer graphics more realistic, to model biological diseases, to advance climate science — and even to analyze artificial systems like the stock market.

But long before these current applications, and long before Mandelbrot's "discovery" of fractals, this mathematical understanding of nature's methodology was encoded into daily life in the south of India. For thousands of years, householders have knelt at entryways and drawn a template of creation — using flour to feed that same creation.

As such, a kolam embodies an aspirational view of humanity, reminding us of the privileged position we occupy, bridging the divine and the earthly — with the capacity to comprehend and the responsibility to honor both.

Aspiration and Anticipation

America embodies an aspirational view of humanity, as well — one promising exemplary self-governance. And it is often derided for its failure to live up to its own ideals, given a history of indigenous genocide and human enslavement, as well as its ongoing injustices and inequalities.

The reason for the postponement of the Kolam Project's installation, while disheartening, perhaps reflects reality. America inspires, but it disappoints. America looks upward, but it falls short. And just months ago, the seat of American government, the anchor of its professed ideals, was besieged and breached.

As such, I'm longing to see the Kolam Project's rescheduled installation outstretched before the Capitol steps. I'm eagerly anticipating this hopeful and magnanimous gesture of welcome to replace the malevolence and intolerance so recently displayed there.

At the same time, I know what will happen after the installation is completed. I know that time and elements and footprints will disperse the Kolam Project's tiles and the stories each one holds. Video footage from January 6th still haunts me — as does a question: What if the rioters come back and smash it, crack it, break it?

But I know the answer.

The next morning, we must build it again.

Photo by Reshot

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