On Sunday, December 29, five citizens of India walked through Besant Nagar, a residential neighbourhood of Chennai, armed with nothing more incendiary than white and red powder and some designs in their heads. In a few hours, they were detained for “unlawful assembly” at the nearest police station.
“This small group might keep growing and might become a law and order problem,” declared Assistant Commissioner Vinoth Shantharam V. “We have to prevent it at this stage.” Ironically, his decision catapulted into national limelight an ingenious, elegant, and resonant mode of artful resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.
Gayathri, Madan, Arthi, Kalyani, and Pragathi – the Besant Nagar five – were detained for tracing kolams: those intricate patterns made with rice powder, hand-drawn by women on thresholds of Tamil Hindu households. Into the kolam’s geometric structures, they inscribed short, anti-CAA-NRC slogans. They also capitalised on a fortuitous coincidence of natural and political rhythms. Within the Tamil calendar, the winter solstice month of Margazhi, which we are currently in, is the most auspicious time for elaborate kolams. It has also become the season of an unexpected groundswell of protest in India.
Like the French Republican calendar, the kolams refashion time, announcing newness through a ritualistic language embedded in seasonal agricultural activity that everybody in a particular society understands. This collective comprehension is fiercely and uncompromisingly regional. Kolams are a Tamil artistic practice that consecrates the relationship between the home and the world outside. Even the name it goes by has resisted linguistic assimilation into the North Indian rangoli. The anti-CAA-NRC kolams have ensured that another Tamil word has entered the pan-Indian political lexicon.
While suffused with the cultural pride characteristic of Tamil politics, the Besant Nagar kolams have caught the national imagination through features widely seen within Indic practices. The relationship to ritual time is one such feature – witness how Chandrashekhar Azad exploited the potential of Friday prayers at the Jama Masjid. Equally important for the art of dissent is structured improvisation. Like jazz musicians, the kolam drawers improvised on existing practice, renovating a flexible yet fixed structure with the insertion of unexpected elements. Varun Grover did the same with his poem against the CAA-NRC that has gone viral.
But the kolam’s most radical feature is ephemerality. The idea of the anti-CAA-NRC kolams has gone viral, but kolams themselves cannot. Kolams are not meant to last. They are meant to be walked across, their complex designs blurred and erased during the day’s comings and goings. Like the khayal that rises, falls, and evaporates, they capture the romance of the dewdrop’s transience. And in their fleeting yet recurrent presence, they mount a devastating political challenge to the rigid monuments of authority. Their association with feminine creativity allow us dreams of shattered Ozymandias statues – with 56-inch chests.
“Is it wrong to draw kolams?” asked Gayathri, one of the detained five. “If they don’t like the kolams, they can always remove it.” They can, but another one will appear. In the studied innocence of this statement lies the magic behind the kolam’s art of resistance. As Pablo Neruda said, “Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrán detener la primavera.” You can mow down all the flowers, but you can’t detain the spring.
Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature at King’s College London.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.