For a fortnight in the early summer months of February and March, Mr P, a young man would be seen every afternoon in the mandalam of the Thalli Temple. He would change from his shirt and trousers to his mundu, only a thorthu casually covering his bare chest. Afternoon stragglers would gather around him and watch as he got his materials ready for the task at hand. Children would mill around the tiny room with the wooden windows, and be berated not to disturb him. As the afternoon sky would begin to dim, and sunrays would lengthen onto the floor, oil lamps would light up. The room would slowly start getting crowded as more people gathered around to watch, their faces filled with curiosity, shining against the flickering oil lamps. Mr P would then begin to draw.
Later in the night, many hours after the drawing was started, a beautiful play of colours on the floor would create an intricate ashtadalam artwork, the figure of Ayyapan or the Bhagvati Roopam . The kottu or drum rolls would announce the start of the puja. And the artist would sit down to sing eulogies to the goddess. Mr P is a kurup, or a Kalam artiste.
Also known as dhooli chitram, Kalam is a unique drawing done on the floor as part of a religious ritual. Usually organised by the Pattu kurup traditional community of Kerala to propitiate gods such as Bhagvati, Ayyapan and Vettakkorumakan, Kalam drawings have different stylistic variations. For example, a drawing in the Malabar region is different from one in South Travancore. The colours used in a Kalam are made from natural sources. The pigments are: rice flour to make the white, charcoal powder for black, turmeric powder for yellow, powdered leaves to make the green, and a mixture of turmeric powder and lime make the red. The Kalam puja is conducted for about 21 days, sponsored by a different family on each day, according to a predetermined schedule.
At the Thalli Kshetram in Aliparamba my family sponsors the puja every year on the twelfth day. It was then that I met Mr P and his brother. Both artists worked in a synchronised manner, barely exchanging a word during the entire performance. Even though the actual puja happens after the drawing is completed, the drawing itself feels like a performance in its own right. They created an ashtadalam, an eight segmented shape with each quadrant being broken up further into smaller detailed segments. “Do you discuss what and how you will draw with your brother?” I asked Mr P. “No we don’t plan. I somehow just know where he will put which colour. We have been doing this now for a few years together and we have seen our father drawing it when we were children. It’s like a rhythm that is within us,” he told me, smiling.
“Depending on the intricacy of the drawing it takes us between two hours, to seven,” Mr P remarks. A Kalam drawing is decorated with flowers and tender leaves, forming a gazebo of sorts above the form of the drawing. Sometimes in areas like in Kalady near Cochin, after the Kalam is completed, a mudiyettu (dance drama) is performed in front of the Kalam. This dance drama is the story of the duel between goddess Bhagvati and the demon Daarikan. In all the pujas, eulogies to the goddess — about her triumphs and her power — are sung.
In the Angadipuram Thirumanthankunnu kshetram, Kalam Puja is organised on a grand scale. The drawing is usually of Goddess Bhagvati, beautifully drawn, larger than life. Here the drawing has three-dimensional qualities: the arms of the goddess are rounded, her breasts are raised into two mounds of rice flour covered with coloured powders, her sari is speckled with intricate designs. As a child, I would go with my extended family to watch. They would come from different parts of the country for this sponsored puja. Everyone would be dressed in their crisp white mundu veshtis, and the air would be thick with the fragrance of oils, camphor and sandalwood. We watched with bated breath as the eulogies would rise to a crescendo and from somewhere the valichappadu (the dancer in a trance) would come before the seated audience, his bare chest marked with sandalwood, and violently begin pulling down the beautiful decorations. With a broom fashioned out of the tender palm leaves, he would move all over the beautiful drawing, wiping it first on one side and then in another. I would feel an immense sadness to see this beautiful drawing erased in front of my eyes, feeling particularly bad for the artist who made it. However, when I looked at his face, he looked calm and serene. My grandmother would assure me that the next day the artist would create it all over again.
The Kalam puja, after all, was not only an offering to the goddess but also symbolised the cycle of creation and destruction, and of the impermanence of life. After getting the puja prasadam, I would walk home with the family, filled with silent admiration for the wisdom and serenity of the young artist.
mandalam: The shape made by the kalam artists – in this case the eight segmented form is called an ashtadalam.
mundu: A white garment also worn around the waist in Kerala. Usually worn when going out.
thorthu: A white cotton towel.
ashtadalam: A design segmented into eight parts used in rituals.
Kalam Puja: A drawing done on the floor during a ritualistic performance.
kurup: A person who makes the drawing for a Kalam Puja.
dhooli chitram: Another name for the drawing done in a Kalam Puja. Also called powder drawing.
mudiyettu: A solo dance drama performed around a dhooli chitram.
valichappadu: A mediator between devotees and deities. Literally means the one who throws light on any problems.
prasadam: A material substance of food that is a religious offering in both Hinduism and Sikhism.