Kolam can play a very nice and enjoyable way of learning Mathematics: Prof Oscar Garcia-Prada

Kolam can play a very nice and enjoyable way of learning Mathematics: Prof Oscar Garcia-Prada

In December 2020, Oscar Garcia-Prada and Claudia Silva delivered a presentation on Kolam: A Western Perspective, organised by the International Centre for Theoretical Studies (ICTS) in Bangalore. Claudia brought out the anthropological aspect of Kolam, and Oscar highlighted the mathematics hidden in Kolam. The husband-wife duo have been working on this project for many years now and hope to visit India soon to continue their study. 

Oscar, a Research Professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) Madrid, began his travels to India in order to pursue mathematical collaborations. His first such collaboration was with Indian mathematicians from the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. “Let me tell you that the Indian school of mathematics is internationally highly recognized, particularly in geometry and there are very eminent mathematicians,” expressed Oscar.

He has been collaborating for many years with Prof S Ramanan, an eminent mathematician and a very good friend of Oscar. His first trip to India was when Prof Ramanan was at the TIFR in Mumbai, for his sixtieth birthday, more than 20 years ago. Prof Ramanan is now retired and in Chennai.

In 2013, Oscar and his collaborators started a formal collaboration known as “Indo-European collaboration on Moduli Spaces” involving four institutions in Europe: Oxford, Paris, Aarhus and Madrid, where the project was coordinated by Oscar, and four institutions in India, the TIFR in Mumbai, the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI), the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai and the Indian Institute of Science  (IISc) in Bangalore. This was a big project, funded by the European Commission under the Marie Curie Programme which involved a lot of travelling to India. This was when Claudia started travelling with Oscar and it was when their interest in Kolam began.

“During the first week of my stay in Chennai, I observed the Kolam in front of many households. By night, these creations disappeared. This is when I realised that they were not painted. When I started going out, I was very glad to see that every woman was very open to explain the process to me. They were surprised that someone was asking for an explanation. For me, it was amazing because I saw these beautiful designs on the street, this ephemeral and dedicated art performed every morning”, explained Claudia.

Kolam in the early morning light by Claudia Silva

For Claudia, a photographer and anthropologist, the whole situation was very fascinating. Not just the Kolams, but the gathering of women and children every morning felt like a very special event. It was like a call from the women to announce the beginning of the day that should be received with the best energy.

At the beginning, Claudia photographed many Kolams with her small pocket camera, and on some occasions women would give the rice flour to her and ask her to try drawing a pattern. Claudia and Oscar would travel during the month of December – January, and this provided them the chance to witness the Mylapore festival during the Pongal celebration.

The initial motivation for Oscar to travel to India was purely mathematical collaboration. But, when the Kolam project began, it provided an extra motivation to go.

“I am not an early bird you see, and by the time I went to the street the action was over, but Claudia would wake up early. It was only then that I went to see the Kolams and I was fascinated by the geometric aspects like the appearance of symmetry. Also the fact that the women performed this so clearly in most cases perhaps without any formal mathematical training. They necessarily did not know the theorems but they naturally had mathematical thoughts. 

Although I had visited my mathematical colleagues to write papers on geometry and other topics, the Kolam project became like a companion project that actually had a place within this purely mathematical research project between Europe and India,” expressed Oscar. 

From the very beginning Claudia envisaged what became her audiovisual project (photographs and videos): “Kolam, an Ephemeral Women´s Art of South India”. This led  to exhibitions in various places in Europe (Madrid, Porto, Oxford, Paris), as well as in New York. The ICTS in Bangalore also wanted to have the exhibition physically but that did not happen due to the pandemic. Instead, in December 2020 there was the online activity mentioned above. Another exhibition in Madrid will take place in April 2022, with the presence of the Ambassador of India to Spain, and another one will be taken to Denmark in the autumn of 2022. 

Beauty with a leaf

While Claudia works on the visual and anthropological aspects, Oscar works on the mathematical aspects. They began to see that this project could be approached from a field which is known as Ethnomathematics. The Madrid exhibition in April 2022, has been accompanied by an activity at ICMAT on this subject which has also covered certain ephemeral arts from Africa. 

“I work at the interface of mathematics and theoretical physics. And here, there was something that had mathematical content, and that connected with art. This was something that has all the links that Claudia has mentioned, and somehow woke up my interest in the field of ethnomathematics.” Oscar explained.  

Ethnomathematics is a discipline that approaches from the point of view of academic mathematics the study of mathematical thoughts and mathematical manifestations that appear in various cultural practices. 

“When it comes to art and science, there is very often a separation that is created by people, rather than trying to explore the relations between the two disciplines”. Oscar explained, “I have always been interested in the interconnections between mathematics, physics and music. In fact, there was a time in Western culture, when music was not separated from mathematics or physics. They were in the curriculum. There was something called the Quadrivium which consisted of astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music as part of the same curriculum. So, I am particularly interested in the correlation between these things.”

Chennai is a bustling city and women wake up at wee hours in the morning to draw the kolams. We asked Claudia how Kolam helps in community building. “In my view, drawing Kolams is a discipline and a meditation. I understood that Kolam is a cultural practice which women use to express some knowledge that they have. The transmission of the drawing patterns from the elder to young generation of women strengthen the feminine line inside each family and the fact that the kolams are drawn outside, allows the gathering of women and children from the neighbourhood. This ephemeral art is a manifestation of the femenine spirit and allows women to express harmony, grace and beauty.

Another significant observation Claudia made was that Kolam transcends cultural borders. For example, when President Joe Biden of the United States was to join the White House, there was a large Kolam drawn outside the US Capitol.

[Note: CSP was in conversation with Smt Shanthi Chandrasekar, who led the kolam installation in front of the U.S Capitol]

Also, at the Mylapore festival, she could see women from all social backgrounds participating in the festival. “This is an example of how art has the power to help us to transcend cultural and social barriers.” remarked Claudia. 

Mylapore Kolam Contest 2020

Mathematics is a subject that many dread. If Kolam were to be included as a mode of teaching mathematics to children, many topics can be easily understood by them. We asked the two of them their thoughts on the same. 

“Yes, for sure. Certainly, one of the aspects that I am researching on is about the introduction of these concepts and practices in schools. I had the opportunity to visit a school during mathematics class, where students were drawing Kolam not on the floor, but on paper. One could easily observe the pure joy in the students, and they immersed themselves into the subject. 

At some point, the way we are learning things should be reconsidered.  I had a chance to talk to ladies that never went to school, but they were wise ladies that had natural interiorized knowledge on symmetry and geometry and many other concepts. I am really sure that these practices could help students to imbibe these concepts,” explained Claudia.  

Kolam can play a very nice and enjoyable way of learning Mathematics. That is one of the things that I think could be exported definitely to education from India among many others. 

Many learn to draw Kolams from a very young age, such that they perfect symmetry and colour combinations. We asked Claudia how this improves their cognitive skills.

“The way we develop our brain in the first seven years of our life is what makes the biggest mark for the rest of our life. From the cognitive point of view, a Kolam is like a seed that is put inside the brain of these children. You have the seed inside you and the seed projects into neural connections that help in the development of many skills. I saw a little girl when she was about a year old, and it was so funny because, you know, when we are children, we tend to put things in our mouths. She loved to touch the rice flour, while trying to imitate her mother. This gives children a chance to explore, in a way that is not so constricted,” Claudia explained. 

We asked the two if they wished to explore Rangoli as well, which is predominant in the North. Claudia has not travelled up north yet, as Oscar has, but she mentioned that she is open to explore the expressions created by Rangoli and other similar practices in India. 

“I visited other parts of India in particular Mumbai and also Agra. Unfortunately, due to the epidemic, we have not been able to explore more. We have observed the use of colours in Kolam in the Mylapore festival. This is a wonderful excuse to travel north, I mean not that we need an excuse. We love India, and we want to explore other parts, but this will be an added benefit,” said Oscar.