Kolams Symbolize the Cosmos: Shanthi Chandrasekar

Kolams Symbolize the Cosmos: Shanthi Chandrasekar

Internationally acclaimed artist, Shanthi Chandrasekar recently led a kolam installation in front of the U.S Capitol. The artwork, made of over 1950 tiles, was displayed to commemorate 100-days of the current US administration.

Shanthi's true fascination, however, lays in exploring the overlap between the spiritual and the scientific and the greater mysteries of the world. She expresses her discoveries by innovating with the Indian art of Kolam. Shanthi has also worked around painting, sculpture, printmaking and papermaking with the idea of bringing art and science together.

In this conversation, Shanthi tells us about her journey, unraveling deeper mysteries of the cosmos through art and finding expression in Kolam.

How did your journey with visual arts unfold?

I have been drawing and painting since I was a child as it came more easily to me than so many other things. Even though I studied physics and psychology, I participated in art events throughout school and college. After my husband and I got married, we moved to Singapore and the United States, which opened up opportunities to explore the Eastern and Western art worlds. After settling down in the US, I decided to stay home with our two children and was able to start offering art lessons privately and at community centers, while also joining art groups and exhibiting my work.

I also began to play around with different disciplines, genres and mediums. Alongside this exploration, I took advantage of the resources offered by local libraries and started learning more about art history and revisiting science - the colorful books and wonderful videos made much more sense to me than the black and white textbooks from school and college. It was during this time that I also picked up books on Indian thought and philosophy.

Living in the US, a whole new world with so many different cultures and backgrounds, enabled me to approach Indian philosophy in a brand new way. I tried to understand the meanings of slokas I grew up learning and was surprised by how similar they were to math and science, particularly in relation to concepts like infinity, time, space, and energy. Inspired by these connections, I began to incorporate them into my artwork.

My artistic journey is a search for the meaning of life and its place in the cosmos. Curiosity has been my driving force, and art is my chosen medium to pursue and understand it. I am fascinated by abstract concepts in cosmology, like the mystery of black holes, dark energy, and multiple dimensions, and attempt to capture the inconceivable through my work. This also includes principles of relativity, quantum mechanics, neuroscience, mathematics and so much more. Though my research is not scholarly, it does however help with my preparatory work. I spend a lot of time reading about various science topics and making sketches or doodling as I listen to online talks.

These rudimentary thoughts eventually translate into drawings, paintings, or sculptures. My work is the result of a very personal experience and exploration, to satisfy an inner need trying to figure out the universe we live in, and if others are able to relate to the work, that is an added bonus.

Kolam - Celebrations (Acrylic on Masonite, 20”x16”, 2001)

What brings art and science together? How can the audience, with no prior knowledge of art, understand this link?

The goals of both art and science are very similar in that they seek deeper truths about the universe and our place in it. The approaches may be different, but the direction is the same. Through observation, experimentation and exploration, they help unravel the mysteries of the universe. Curiosity, imagination and open-mindedness are the driving forces in this journey at the threshold of convergent and divergent thinking, requiring intuitive decision-making alongside rigorous practice and perseverance.

I have always been interested in both, and enjoy juxtaposing them to create art that is inspired by science, taking advantage of the artistic freedom when exploring abstract concepts. As a predominantly visual learner, this juxtaposition of art and science is very fruitful in creating work that is also thought provoking.

I hope for my work to be universal in its appeal. I would like the audience to be able to connect with the work in a personal way based on their individual experiences and interpretations. Science happens to be my inspiration most of the time, but that does not mean that the viewer needs to respond to it in the same way.  My artwork has many layers to it and the audience can connect with it accordingly. It can be viewed for its aesthetic qualities as I enjoy playing with lines, textures and colors based on my personal visual vocabulary. My artist's statement is usually a short introduction to my inspiration. There have been times when my physics inspired work reminds the viewer of some image in biology and that is totally fine. We all approach life based on our prior experiences and art shouldn’t be any different.

(Pen and Ink on Paper, 30"x22". 2020)

Are all your artworks based on some scientific concepts, knowingly or unknowingly?

Yes, all the pieces are in some way scientifically inclined. The starting points may vary and not seem scientific, but eventually, some aspect of science will emerge. I think this happens because I don’t categorize my thoughts, but let them all seep through into the work as ideas get layered. This interdisciplinary approach to working gives the freedom to move in directions that are not limiting, but liberating and exploratory. For me, art and science go hand in hand when it comes to learning and retaining what I have learned in my journey between the microcosm and the macrocosm. My work is a combination of precise scientific enquiry and the freedom of artistic license with the process varying from highly planned beginnings to random mark making.  This free flow approach leads to new possibilities and new directions, thus keeping me constantly excited about my work.

Some series like Cosmology, Memories & Patterns, and Singularities & Infinities are works based on my interpretations of scientific ideas on black holes, spacetime, energy, neurons etc.  Organ Mandala focuses on human anatomy with illustration-like drawings of the retina, lungs and kidneys arranged in a circular format.

Samadhana is a series of multimedia artwork inspired by ancient Indian and current scientific cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the entire Universe. These big questions have been raised by various cultures and civilizations from time immemorial, leading to various creation theories. Through theoretical and experimental methods, modern science has also been on the search for these ultimate truths. With this in mind, I have explored the concepts of space, space-time, time, energy, fields, and information through scientific theories as well as the intuitive insights of ancient Indian philosophy. Just as mathematics is the tool used by science to understand these concepts, I believe the people of ancient India used stories to do the same.

Though the Akshara series is a body of work based on the scripts of languages, it still has elements of science underlying it.  As I was working on the various languages, I was amazed at how most Indian languages have their vowels and consonants as separate groups and are very scientific in their arrangement based on the positions where the sound is created.

Pulmonary Mandala (Pen & Ink on Paper, 30"x22", 2020)

What fascinates you the most about kolam – aesthetically and scientifically?

I have grown up with kolams and they are some of my earliest memories of art. The simplicity of dots and lines in kolams, with their beauty and philosophy, continues to inspire me. In spite of the rules guiding how the dots and lines should be drawn and the maintenance of symmetry in the design, there is space for endless creativity. Since the pandemic began, I have started drawing a new kolam in my book every morning, and it has become a calming ritual to start the day that is both mentally challenging and aesthetically pleasing.

Scientifically, kolams can be versatile tools to understand abstract concepts. There is rich mathematics behind the drawings including geometry, permutations and combinations, symmetries, and even knot, graph and group theories. The grid of dots and the undulating lines weaving through them reminds me of atomic and molecular structures, protein folding, and the particle and wave nature of light. The patterns created by sonic vibrations as studied in Cymatics are very similar to kolams designs.

I am always fascinated by how women draw these beautiful Kolams every day without thinking of themselves as artists or mathematicians, but simply performing an age-old ritual. It is a powerful thought to imagine all these women making art at the same time, in front of their houses on a day-to-day basis.

(Acrylic on Canvas, 40"x30")

Why is Kolam regarded as sacred geometry? Does practicing this art hold a higher meaning for you?

Kolam is an eco-friendly art form made on the ground using materials like rice or rock powder in front of the house at sunrise and sunset every day. Drawing kolams as a daily ritual for an auspicious beginning/ending to each day, at the threshold of space and time, makes it sacred. Consisting of dots and lines, they create geometric patterns that symbolize the cosmos.

The kolams are very mathematical in their making and involve geometry at their core. The dots are drawn as grids with 90 or 60-degree angles and are done freehand without the use of any tools. There are rules that need to be followed while creating a kolam. Each of the six basic Kolam shapes is made up of four parts: a quarter of a circle and a quarter of a square in different combinations. The beauty of it is that when a woman draws a kolam first thing in the morning, she doesn’t focus on the artistic or mathematical nature of this art form, but more as a daily ritual, keeping an ancient tradition alive.

For me, kolams hold a deeper meaning. They are filled with symbolism and life lessons that have been my support. The dots are thought to represent challenges in life and if a woman can weave her way around them, while maintaining at least one symmetry, and get back to the starting point, then she will be able to deal with life’s ups and downs. The dots and lines remind me of Shiva-Shakthi with the combination of the two creating something beautiful and whole. The ephemeral nature of kolams is a constant reminder of non-attachment and that nothing is permanent. It is this timeless quality of kolams that I esteem the most.

Shakthi- Kolam, Triptych (Acrylic on Canvas, 45”x45”)

Apart from Kolam, you have also learnt Tanjore and miniature art, each of them connected to the divinity in some manner. What does this say about the importance of art and creativity in the Indian civilization?

I learned Tanjore painting simply because an unexpected opportunity had come up. Just like how as a child I used to resist the rules and traditions involved in making kolams, I found that I wanted to move beyond the discipline involved in the making of Tanjore painting and explore new directions. It was only when I left the country, and was nostalgic for the familiar, missing the comfort of being surrounded by traditional arts, that I started incorporating them into my artwork. With this newfound new respect, I immersed myself in the traditional kolam patterns and started to learn more about other kinds of Indian arts like Kalamkari and Madhubani.  As an Indian Art teacher, I started introducing these art forms to my students. One of the aspects of ancient Indian art I have admired is that the artists consider themselves as a medium enabling the creative process to happen, rather than as an owner. The artist would meditate on the theme and immerse in the process of creation, resulting in artwork that can be powerful.

There is something beautiful and transcendent about ancient traditional art and creating them is very meditative and involves focus and practice. It also gives an opportunity to understand the narratives and stories behind the traditional pieces. A civilization’s strength comes from its art and culture and that is the legacy that remains for future generations.

Vishnu’s Dashavatharam (Mixed Media on Canvas, 64”x64”, 2006)

Indian philosophical canon and knowledge traditions have elaborated on the relation between the cosmos, creativity, nature and the pursuit of seeking the truth. Does this also influence your art?

Yes, I try to listen to discourses and talks on Indian philosophy to understand the Indian knowledge of science, cosmos and nature. Some of my work is a juxtaposition of ideas from ancient Indian cosmology and current scientific theories. I also listen to and try to understand the meaning of sacred texts like Lalitha Sahasranamam, Vishnu Sahasranamam, and the Bhagavad Gita as they contain descriptions that are very similar to scientific concepts like energy, space and time. I find the description of everything flowing into Vishnu in the Viswaroopam form very similar to black holes.

Most of my work is very abstract with titles that often refer to Indian vocabulary along with science terminology. Sometimes I create work that explores science through symbolism using motifs from traditional art forms of India as in the Samadhana series. Brahma, Saraswathi, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva and Durga are depicted as Time, Information, Space-Time, Fields, Space, Energy respectively using Kalamkari, Tanjore painting and Chola bronzes styles to depict them.

(Acrylic on Canvas, 60”x48”, 2016)

(Mixed Media on Canvas, 60”x48”, 2016)

(Acrylic on Canvas, 60”x48”, 2016)

What can India offer to the larger artistic community across the world, making our knowledge of aesthetics, science and creativity a form of Soft Power?

India, with its very ancient history, has a lot to offer to the world. We are immersed in our culture and traditions on a day-to-day basis and it is good, but tends to be seen as something mundane or normal.  Understanding the intention behind these art forms will be helpful to make sure that these traditions continue for generations to come. There is a lot of wisdom in these traditions that get sidelined. The philosophy and purpose of a lot of our knowledge base has been lost in competition with technology and modernization. It doesn’t have to be that way but can happen side by side. I grew up with kolams, but it was the nostalgia of missing them that got me to explore it further and recognize their significance.

I think celebrating the unity within diversity that makes up India would be very timely and relevant in this time of conflict. Mutual respect for the richness of ideas and traditions brought forth by the various peoples of India would be something that India can offer to the world  to find the similarities in the variety and to find variety within similarities makes life interesting.

India has been a melting pot of cultures and traditions over millennia, where aesthetics, science and creativity have been cherished, nourished and encouraged. It is this living tradition of continuously assimilating new thoughts and ideas while still retaining its timeless traditions that India can offer to the larger artistic community and the world.

Acknowledgment by Shanthi: 'I was supported in part by funding from the Montgomery County Government and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County to create some of these series.' 

Feature Image: Ancestral Voices-Grantham (Acrylic on Canvas, 48"x72", 2009)

Photo Credit: Tony Ventouris