As a young girl who would spend her vacations in Kallakurichi (Tamil Nadu), Shanthi Chandrasekar carefully watched her grandmother draw a kolam outside her house. “First, she drew dots that were evenly spaced, like a matrix, and then, weaved a line through those dots, ensuring symmetry. I was intrigued not only by the beauty and harmony of the dots and lines, but also by its impermanence,” says Chandrasekar.
Last month, the self-taught artist imparted lessons in this traditional Indian art form of drawing geometric patterns on the floor to millions across the world through videos circulated as part of ‘Inauguration Kolam 2021’, a collaborative public art initiative featured as part of the official Presidential Inauguration Committee Kick-off event in the US. The volunteers will possibly physically assemble the design in Washington DC in April. “Kolams are a symbol of welcome and a reminder to enter the house with positive energy,” adds Maryland-based Chandrasekar.
Conceptualised in December by Chandrasekar, along with her friends Roopal Shah and Sowmya Somnath, interested participants from across the US were invited to create patterns on cardboard tiles and mail them. To guide them, Chandrasekar sent out instructions through videos and drawings. Over 1,800 of these will be put together to cover 2,500 square feet groundcover near the US Capitol. “The kolam tiles can be arranged in different patterns. We asked people to put their energy into it, whatever they felt they could fill in that space, and that is something they really enjoyed,” says Chandrasekar.
While 10 schools across Washington DC have been roped in for the physical kolam, the digital version includes individual entries from across the world, including from India. The participants come from varied age groups, three to 95, and across professions, be it artists or teachers. “The response has been way beyond our expectation,” adds the multidisciplinary artist.
While the kolam mat somewhat reflects the shared South Asian heritage between Chandrasekar and Vice President Kamala Harris, the artist notes how it also represents an amalgamation between math and art. “Kolams are very mathematical and follow certain rules that include closed loops, which don’t overlap more than once and should have at least one form of symmetry. Over the years, I have created my own patterns and come up with complex combinations. I learned about fractal systems and tessellations through this art form,” says Chandrasekar, adding how her childhood at the Department of Atomic Energy township in Kalpakkam — where her father worked — and her background in psychology, aided her in finding connections between art, math and science.
When her son and daughter took up neuroscience courses in college, she began to study the subject more intently. “Much of my research has focussed on space, space-time, time, energy, fields as well as neuroscience-based topics such as memories and neurons,” adds Chandrasekar. The outcome are series such as ‘Memories and Patterns’, where she brings out the “connectedness of the oligodendrocytes and the axons” and “Mapping Black Holes” and “Moksha Black Hole” “borrowed concepts from neuroscience and cosmology to create a black hole that draws in information that is received and transmitted by neurons, thus leading to voids in processing and distortions of reality.”
The ‘Akshara’ (Syllable) series, on the other hand, celebrated her fascination for languages. “Combining scientific fact and theories with my wild imagination has been fruitful in creating artwork that questions our known reality and seeks to learn more about the unknown,” she adds.