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To honor Kamala Harris, these women are bringing a traditional Indian art form to D.C., made by thousands of hands

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/22/2021 Sydney Page
a group of people posing for the camera: Ajitha Ratnam, 53, and her two daughters Tulsi, 27, and Tirtha, 29, in Oakton, Va., with their tile contributions for the Inauguration Kolam 2021 project, which was organized by three Indian American women. The kolam, a South Indian art form, is to welcome President Biden and Vice President Harris, whose mother was an Indian immigrant. (Courtesy of Ajitha Ratnam) © Courtesy of Ajitha Ratnam/Courtesy of Ajitha Ratnam Ajitha Ratnam, 53, and her two daughters Tulsi, 27, and Tirtha, 29, in Oakton, Va., with their tile contributions for the Inauguration Kolam 2021 project, which was organized by three Indian American women. The kolam, a South Indian art form, is to welcome President Biden and Vice President Harris, whose mother was an Indian immigrant. (Courtesy of Ajitha Ratnam)

A traditional South Indian art form will head toward the U.S. Capitol to welcome President Biden and Vice President Harris, in part as a nod to Harris’s Tamil heritage.

Called a kolam, it will form a quilt-like ground cover made from about 2,000 individual tiles decorated by people across the country. They will be woven together and offered as a cultural touchstone and greeting for the new administration and vice president, whose mother was an Indian immigrant.

Three women joined forces in late November to spearhead Inauguration Kolam 2021 and produce the sprawling crowdsourced public welcome — all on recycled cardboard. It is modeled after the geometric Indian art traditionally created by women.

background pattern: Volunteers gathered in Lanham, Md., earlier this month, to practice putting the nearly 2,000 tiles together to form the kolam. (Tony Ventouris) © Tony Ventouris/Tony Ventouris Volunteers gathered in Lanham, Md., earlier this month, to practice putting the nearly 2,000 tiles together to form the kolam. (Tony Ventouris)

Shanthi Chandrasekar, 53, co-created the project alongside her friends Roopal Shah, 51, and Sowmya Somnath, 44.

“All of us were so ready for something like this,” said Chandrasekar, an artist who lives in North Potomac, Md.

Deepak Nayyar standing next to a road: Shanthi Chandrasekar, 53, a multimedia artist based in North Potomac, Md., co-created the Inauguration Kolam 2021 initiative. (Tony Ventouris) © Tony Ventouris/Tony Ventouris Shanthi Chandrasekar, 53, a multimedia artist based in North Potomac, Md., co-created the Inauguration Kolam 2021 initiative. (Tony Ventouris)

The kolam was set to be displayed near the Capitol during inauguration week, but due to security concerns following the insurrection earlier this month, the group postponed the installation until it can get necessary permission and permits from police and the National Park Service. Although the installation was delayed, the project was still showcased in the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s virtual welcome event.

The group also created a digital kolam mosaic, to ensure those outside the D.C. area can actively participate, too.

To pull off the large-scale art, the three women mobilized to collect individual tiles from people around the country, which they will merge together to form a 60-foot kolam. The women broadcast their mission on social media, in local schools, and by word of mouth. In just eight weeks, nearly 2,000 12-by-12-inch colorful tiles have poured in from around the country.

a little boy sitting at a table with a birthday cake: Each tile will be connected with metal clips, forming a quilt-like ground cover. The final installation will be displayed near the Capitol, once the group receives the necessary permissions and permits. (Tony Ventouris) © Tony Ventouris/Tony Ventouris Each tile will be connected with metal clips, forming a quilt-like ground cover. The final installation will be displayed near the Capitol, once the group receives the necessary permissions and permits. (Tony Ventouris)

“Democracy requires engagement and is its own sort of practice. It is more than just expecting elected officials to bring about all the change we wish to see,” said Shah, who lives in D.C. “It is all of our work to bring people together, share stories, respect journeys and heal divides.”

The tiles came from people like Rugminy Gopal, 95, who decorated her tile with intricate patterns and lines from her home in Rockville, Md. And 5-year-old Savitha Somnath Buono, who carefully colored her tile with vibrant shades of green, purple, red, and orange from her home in Kingston, N.Y.

A kolam is made of a grid of dots and lines; the dots symbolize hardships in life, and the lines that surround the dots represent the process of navigating challenges. The final product is a mosaic of sorts, depicting the collective human capacity to overcome obstacles. Traditionally, kolams are drawn using rice flour or chalk, and are placed outside a home’s doorstep to welcome guests.

“A kolam is aesthetically beautiful, while at the same time, it is mathematical and philosophical,” explained Chandrasekar, who remembers watching her grandmother draw daily kolams outside her home in India. “It’s an exercise for the mind and body.”

a man and a woman smiling for the camera: Stephanie Kay, 56, a D.C. public school teacher, with her mother, Bessie Kay, 95. The mother-daughter duo said they were inspired to “create bold, powerful and differentiated designs” to represent the incoming administration. (Courtesy of Stephanie Kay) © Courtesy of Stephanie Kay/Courtesy of Stephanie Kay Stephanie Kay, 56, a D.C. public school teacher, with her mother, Bessie Kay, 95. The mother-daughter duo said they were inspired to “create bold, powerful and differentiated designs” to represent the incoming administration. (Courtesy of Stephanie Kay)

Each participant in the giant kolam collaboration was given a designated template, which they then cut and pasted onto a recycled yard sign or cardboard box.

The templates each contain a large dot encapsulated by one of six unique shapes, all of which were carefully constructed by Chandrasekar to ensure the lines on the tiles link seamlessly in the final art installation.

“Shanthi did multiple calculations to figure out how many shapes we needed, and how they would all connect,” Somnath said. “Every tile counts. This exercise was complicated, but also amazing that we have all these tiles that can fit together in a kolam.”

Kyra Jefferson et al. posing for the camera: D.C.-based sisters, Caira Wilcoxen, 10, and Ziyra Wilcoxen, 11, with their tile contributions. (Courtesy of Stephanie Kay) © Courtesy of Stephanie Kay/Courtesy of Stephanie Kay D.C.-based sisters, Caira Wilcoxen, 10, and Ziyra Wilcoxen, 11, with their tile contributions. (Courtesy of Stephanie Kay)

“The dots are important because those are the central pieces, but the lines around them are the connectors,” said Shah. “We asked people to fill in the space between with a little bit of themselves, and their own identity, positive energy, love and creativity.”

Contributors were granted artistic license to do as they pleased with their personalized designs. Some artists stuck to traditional Indian patterns and peacock illustrations, and others got more creative. To create the designs, participants in the project were told to use any colorful art supplies they wanted.

Although kolams are derived from Indian culture, the purpose of the project, the women said, is to celebrate all Americans.

“A lot of diverse groups connected for this, not necessarily just those who have a heritage connection to the kolam,” said Somnath.

“We wanted to weave everyday people and their stories together to bring some light into the world,” echoed Shah.

a person holding a sign posing for the camera: Charlie Woodhead, 10, from Loudoun County, Va., proudly showcasing his tile. (Courtesy of Ranjana Majumdar) © Courtesy of Ranjana Majumdar/Courtesy of Ranjana Majumdar Charlie Woodhead, 10, from Loudoun County, Va., proudly showcasing his tile. (Courtesy of Ranjana Majumdar)

Jessica Beels, 57, a D.C.-based artist who participated in the project, volunteered to help sort through submissions and eventually assemble the final art installation in Washington.

“The unity of everybody drawing all of these elements and then gathering them together is wonderful to experience,” she said, adding that she and a group of 15 volunteers gathered in Lanham, Md., to put together a practice installation on Jan. 7.

a group of people sitting at a picnic table: Volunteers gathered in Lanham, Md. earlier this month, to practice putting the nearly 2,000 tiles together to form the kolam. (Tony Ventouris) © Tony Ventouris/Tony Ventouris Volunteers gathered in Lanham, Md. earlier this month, to practice putting the nearly 2,000 tiles together to form the kolam. (Tony Ventouris)

“Being able to do this collaborative project one day after the Capitol attack was so cathartic, because it was a positive, beautiful, creative, joint effort,” Beels said. “It obviously connects to the inauguration and Kamala Harris, but it also connects to something larger and more symbolic about our aspirations for what American can be.”

While the central purpose of the project is to welcome the incoming administration, “this was in no way about a political victory,” Somnath said, reinforcing that they don’t want to politicize the kolam. “We are doing this as a civil engagement and cultural offering.”

a person standing in front of a laptop: Uma Sieg, 8, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who said her tile was inspired by the work of French artist Henri Matisse. (Courtesy of Nisha Baliga) © Courtesy of Nisha Baliga/Courtesy of Nisha Baliga Uma Sieg, 8, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who said her tile was inspired by the work of French artist Henri Matisse. (Courtesy of Nisha Baliga)

Still, the women agreed, Harris’s swearing in was of special significance to them as Indian Americans, as Harris is not only the first woman to hold a nationally elected office, but she is also the first Black woman and Asian American.

“By Kamala Devi Harris being in the White House, it opens a window for all of us to be real about our cultures and our heritage, and embrace where we come from,” said Shah.

Chandrasekar agreed. For her, the story of Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan — who left India when she was 19 years old — reminds her of her own journey to America: “When I see pictures [of her], I see myself.” she said.

This teacher was called to protect the U.S. Capitol as a National Guard member. He now holds class from a Humvee.

While in many ways, Harris’s story mirrors Chandrasekar’s past, for Somnath, it’s a symbol of her future.

“It will be easier to tell part of my cultural story for my kids’ sake,” said Somnath, who lives in Kingston, N.Y., where there is not a large Tamil community.

Her own young children participated in the project by making tiles, as did more than 100 other children in the D.C. area.

Marla McLean, an art teacher at School Within School, a D.C. public school, rallied dozens of her young students to participate in the project.

Upset by veterans who stormed the Capitol, these vets decided to clean up trash the mob left on the streets of D.C.

“I love the concept of it, and the idea that this pattern is 5,000 years old and it brings you balance and peace as you make it,” McLean said, adding that she played traditional Indian music during her virtual art lessons.

Beyond serving as a therapeutic exercise for her students, making the tiles, she said, has “taught them about this South Indian practice.”

Since the school is located near the Capitol, McLean’s students, who range in age from 3 to 6, have been directly impacted by the insurrection, she said.

“There has been so much stress and trauma for them, and I thought this is the perfect healing process for the kids,” McLean said.

For Latha Sundararaman, 48, who lives in Fairfax, Va., contributing to the project and volunteering to help collect tiles from others has also been healing.

Sundararaman, who was born in South India, is well acquainted with the kolam ritual, which was a fundamental part of her childhood, she said.

“During the first week of December, I lost my dad,” Sundararaman explained. “He has been a big supporter of me and my art, and whenever I would do kolams in front of my home back in India, he would be there supporting me.”

“I am really thankful that this came at the right time for me,” she said. “It was so therapeutic.”

Correction: The photo credit on two images have been updated to credit photographer Ed Wondoloski.

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