Kolams are a gift to the universe to express gratitude, humility and admiration: Ellen Pauwels

Kolams are a gift to the universe to express gratitude, humility and admiration: Ellen Pauwels

Kolam has travelled far and wide, and has made an impact on the lives it has touched. ISP had the opportunity to speak to one such person from Belgium. 

Ellen Pauwels came to India to Rajasthan, for the first time, in 2017 along with a group. Her first trip did not seem to end on a positive note and she vowed to never return to India. In 2018, she met a woman on a trip to Europe, who was a frequent traveller to Pondicherry. She convinced Ellen to give India another chance. So, in April 2019, with apprehension, she returned to India for 2 weeks. To her surprise, she lost her heart almost immediately this time: she fell in love with Pondicherry. Ellen returned in July 2019 for 3 weeks and in January 2020, she came to live in Pondy for one and half years. “I have been back in Belgium since June 2021, but I have been visiting Pondy every holiday since then. I consider Pondy my second home now, where my partner and some of my close friends are living,” she expressed. 

How did Kolam come into your life and what does it mean to you?

Kolam presented itself to me in an almost unconscious way. I think I must have seen the drawings on the street, and they spoke to me from the beginning. It was a different experience for me to see drawings on the street. I was fascinated by them because of their beauty. I looked around for courses and workshops, and asked some of my Indian friends about it. Through one of them, I learnt about a 12-week course with Grace Gitadelila

I enjoyed Grace’s approach, because along with drawing Kolams, she teaches us about the history, the background, the stories, the spirituality, the power, and the energy. This makes the whole course so much more powerful than just a Kolam drawing course, because you really integrate the Kolam into your full being. 

Do you think the current generation is losing out on understanding the art of kolam? If so, how do we reinstate it? 

I know some women who learnt how to draw Kolams from their moms and grandmoms, but most of them learnt some Kolams and reproduced them. They mostly create their own designs or add their own details to the Kolams. Everywhere I go, I watch and appreciate Kolams, but I can see that Kolams are not seen in every street. I see them mostly in rural areas, and they are mostly done by the older generation. I hope Grace can convince the women to continue the tradition of Kolams. I think, if people learn about Kolam, they will rediscover the power and the energy that emanates from creating them.

Kolams have been incorporated into many academic institutions to teach mathematics. In what other ways can Kolam help in academia? 

I am a secondary school teacher myself. Funnily enough, I am thinking about a way to integrate mindfulness and Kolams into my teaching practice. I think it is a good way for children and young people to reconnect to themselves, and to find stillness and calmness inside again. We are living in a rushed and stressful world and we forget to stand still, observe and be grateful. I look for new Kolams on the internet and I draw/copy them in a book whenever I feel stressed out. The focus on the drawing, the symmetry of the compositions, and the beauty that is emerging from it make me feel centred again. I believe that students will also feel the power and energy that is captured in the Kolam, because drawing them feels sometimes like magic happening. Especially when I can trace all the dots of a Sikku Kolam without lifting my pen once, I feel admiration, astonishment and satisfaction about the perfection of it. Kolams are mathematics and they have taught me that nature, our planet, life on earth is almost perfect and everything fits together, like well-oiled pieces of a machine. 

What is one of your favourite kolams to draw? Why?

I like to draw all kolams, depending on my mood. Padi kolams I like for their beauty, grace and endless extension possibilities and kodu kolams because I can be creative with them and create my own kolams. They will also give me some insight into what is going on in my mind and mostly with these I feel that I’m giving a very personal gift to the universe. I feel mostly drawn to sikku kolams though. They are small mysteries to figure out, because you have to go around the right dots or the whole kolam falls apart. After more than 1 year, I can feel the shift in my brain too. In the beginning it was impossible to start and I got lost in the patterns, but now it has become more of intuition and I mostly can copy without too many mistakes. The act of figuring out where to go is very mindful: it takes you out of your brain and into the moment. My favourite ones are the ones with the idukku pulli, because they have more surprising and flowing patterns that repeat themselves and create a perfect whole together. 

Making kolams on paper or making them with powder however are two completely different things. I like doing both, but I need more practice with the powder. Being in India motivates and inspires me each time to make them again and I hope to learn much more, especially from Grace and her courses.

Can this meditative art form help in the child neurology and in alleviating a few neurological disorders, in a sense that it creates beauty on the outside and inside? 

A lot of neurological disorders stem, in my opinion, from the fact that we have to live our lives in a pace that is not matching our human nature anymore. It is all about efficiency and productivity, about profits, about usefulness. I think we produce too much adrenaline and cortisol which affects our mind and brain such that our bodies go into attack mode and we shut down. We are on the defence almost constantly. I believe mindfulness and by extension the practice of Kolams can help us find our way back to our true selves again. I felt the power the first time I drew a Kolam: it was like I was giving a gift to the universe without even realising fully what exactly I would draw. My mind decided by itself and my hands executed what my mind wanted to put out there. It was a very strong feeling. So yes, I believe the practice of Kolams can bring us back into our own minds and bodies again, because of the strong spiritual energy that you inevitably feel once you go into the Kolam flow. I plan to learn and practise Kolam further, because it is a never-ending learning  process. 

Do your students know of the art of Kolam? What are the ways you would like to incorporate it into your teaching?

My Belgian students don’t know much about it, like most people in Belgium. I tell people about it all the time and I draw them (not every day) in front of my terrace door. I take pictures and I share them on Instagram. Recently, about a month ago, I tattooed one of my favourite kolams on my right arm. It serves to me as a reminder of the connection I rediscovered with the universe, but also as a reminder of beauty and perfection, of temporality but also of endlessness and of letting go every time again. It is a powerful symbol to carry around on my arm. Bonus: when people see the tattoo, they ask me what it means and that gives me an excuse to elaborate on the tradition of drawing kolam and what it stands for, but also on the universal energy,  and the spiritual connection that so many people lost and want to rediscover. 

In my regular classes, where I am teaching Dutch, I tell my students about my time in India and everything I learned there, and of course about kolams. I am thinking about an afternoon activity (during lunch break) where students could come for 45 min to find a quiet place where they can practise mindfulness through activities like meditation, drawing kolam, and giving hand massages. It is still an idea in progress, but I hope to find a way to put it into practice (after I talk to and convince my principal).

The monsoon in India is almost coming to an end, and during this season, we celebrate a number of festivals that call for large kolam to be drawn in front of houses. Do you think the rains and the Kolam have a connection? How so?

I have never thought about the connection between kolams and rain, so your question is forcing me to think about it. I think there must be a connection, yes. I come from one the most rainy countries in this world, so my connection with rain was never a positive one. People get grumpy, angry and frustrated when it is raining in Belgium, because it gets cold, dark and depressing. Most people will be in a very bad mood when it rains. 

In India I learnt how people react so differently to rain: they wait for it, long for it, celebrate it and appreciate it, because the climate is so different. I felt that difference too: I never get sad or grumpy when it is raining in India. It feels like a gift from and to nature, because it gets so dry in summer and water is an indispensable and vital part of life. Kolams feel like a gift that people give to the universe to express gratitude, humility and admiration. It would make sense then that people will draw larger kolams in the rainy season to express gratitude for the long awaited vital water but also to remind the universe not to forget about us who need the gift of water. I think it could be asking and giving at the same time. Secondly, you spend much longer drawing a large kolam which prolongs your connectivity to nature, the world and the energy around you which grounds you and makes you more aware. 

Learning about Kolam and practising it has changed my life in a profound way. It has reconnected me to myself and mostly to the world around me. Westerners are so much more sceptical when it comes to acknowledging universal energies and the mysterious ways of life. I had lost that connection as well before I came to India. Because of KolamYoga I rediscovered something that was lost to me. I can feel that connection to the universe now, especially when I’m drawing a Kolam on the floor with powder. It’s my universal yet personal gift and it reminds me of the temporality of life and events. A Kolam is meant to be erased and it teaches us about appreciating beauty, about being grateful and about letting go. It reminds me of the perfection of life and how amazed we should be about the universe, the planet and the life on this planet, but it also teaches me to let go of perfection and still being proud whenever I draw a Kolam that isn’t perfect at all, but still completely mine, coming from and through me. The mistakes in my Kolam,  the not so straight lines, the imperfect shapes, the small imbalances: they show me a reflection of me and my state of mind. Even two people drawing the exact same Kolam will produce a different end result. Life may be astonishingly perfect, but human beings are not. Maybe Kolam is our way to try and reach a higher level, but we need to accept that we are limited as human beings. I believe that Kolams are one of our portals through which we can catch glimpses of how amazing our universe is, but we are not meant to reach that perfection, only admire and appreciate it.