Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
Creating paintings on a natural surface has a really ancient history in India, as evidenced by the Bhimbetka frescoes that are at least 15, 000 years old. This news article  talks about the use of Rangoli in the Mahabharata, while another forum mentions the design in the Ramayana. Other floor designs, such as the endearing floor drawing of the footprints of little Krishna walking into the house during Janmashtami are well known in Indian tradition.
One of the 64 arts mentioned in ancient India is तण्डुलकुसुमवलिविकाराः, i.e. Tandula (rice), Kusumavali (array of flowers), Vikara (transformation). This is an art form of organizing an offering of rice and flowers. Rangoli appears to be an instance of this art form. Rangoli is mentioned in the Chitralakshana , one of the oldest Indian treatises on paintings, attesting to its ancient origins. In Tamil Nadu, Kolam floor designs were popular during the Chola rule .
An article summarizing the amazing work of Dr. Gift Siromoney, a pioneer of Kolam research, comments on the historicity of the Kolam patterns in Tamil literature : “Contrary to popular belief, the common threshold patterns are not very ancient. The practice of decorating the floor may go back to about six hundred years and not more. A few designs may be traced to the Jain temples of South Kanara and at least one to Mahayana Buddhism“.
The first conclusion is incorrect. While it may be possible that the usage of the word ‘Kolam’ in Tamil to denote these sacred designs may have been no earlier than 16th century, the actual practice of such floor drawings in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India is ancient, as mentioned earlier. The author is quite right in his second observation that the sacred practice of Kolam is common to all three dharmic systems of India.
“Art in India, contrary to a common idea, dwelt much upon life; but still its highest achievement was always in the field of the interpretation of the religio-philosophical mind and its whole tone was coloured by a suggestion of the spiritual and the infinite.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 206)
Another interesting point mentioned here is that: “To save time in “drawing” the Kolam, many women use devices such as perforated rolling tubes and perforated trays“. We find that attempts to automate Kolam generation were made several decades ago. Of course, such a mechanical device would reproduce a single pattern.
A few years later, American anthropologist Layard published a detailed treatise  that has been cited extensively. More recent studies done by researchers have covered a wide range of areas including art, computer science, math, sociology, etc.
Dr. Gift Siromoney at Madras Christian College co-authored a series of articles on Kolam in the 1970s-80s  by analyzing Kolam patterns as a ‘picture language’ in the context of computer graphics, image processing, and theoretical computer science topics. Dr. Siromoney was by all accounts, a remarkable multi-talented personality. His key contributions include:
After the pioneering work of Siromoney, a variety of western and Japanese research contributions were published. One of the common goals was the design and analysis of algorithms that could efficiently generate a variety of Kolam patterns. Innovative ideas from math topics ranging from knot theory to topology were employed to come up with methods for generating valid Kolam patterns. Some others tried to enumerate the number of single-kambi Kolam combinations possible for a given number of dots in a grid (not surprisingly, they grow exponentially).
Since the earliest works, several researchers have remarked on the ‘endless lines’ within some Kolams, which we discuss in the next section. Contemporary research is also trying to better understand how single-strand Kolam patterns can be encoded via a ‘sequential language’, i.e. the sequence of gestures employed by Kolam creators. Recently (2011), researchers at SASTRA university in Thanjavur patented a steganographic method (encrypting and transmitting data using an image or pattern), using a pulli Kolam. Note that FIG 2. below resembles a single kambi Kolam. There may also be beneficial applications in the analysis of the Traveling Salesman Problem, a famously difficult problem in Computational Complexity Theory. Clearly, we have a long way to go before we fully decode its magic.
Whereas the western approach to art, science, and math is based on a separate and independent existence of the material and the transcendental world, the Indian approach sees no such dichotomy. Indian art, including Kolam, is rooted in a sacred cosmology, which we examine next.
“The whole basis of Indian artistic creation, perfectly conscious and recognised in the canons, is directly spiritual and intuitive.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 257)
“One may well say that beyond the ordinary cultivation of the aesthetic instinct necessary to all artistic appreciation there is a spiritual insight or culture needed if we are to enter into the whole meaning of Indian artistic creation, otherwise we get only at the surface external things or at the most at things only just below the surface. It is an intuitive and spiritual art and must be seen with the intuitive and spiritual eye.” (p. 269)