It was in 2019 that Deepika Velmurugan found a cradle separator – used for keeping apart the two ends of a cloth cradle - while cleaning her house. She decided to put her art skills to use and painted the separator. It was not just any painting; she drew on it a Kolam, the geometrical line drawings made with rice flour or chalk at the entrance of homes in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other southern states to invite prosperity.
Deepika replaced rice flour with paint to work on the cradle separator and thus was created the first piece which went on to change the direction of her life.
Cut to 2021. The 32-year-old runs a successful home business ‘Home2Cherish’ that revolves around painting Kolam on almost every household décor.
Hobby turns full-time business
Based in Tamil Nadu’s Srirangam, Deepika says it was her mom who introduced her to Kolam when she was a child. “She does it incredibly well and taught me everything from scratch, but I never saw it as a business idea.”
Having learnt over a thousand Kolams in her life, the skill came in handy when she made the art on items as small as a wall hanging or a cradle separator to as big as a door panel.
“I was making traditional paintings like Kalamkari motifs and drawings of animals in bright colours after which I slowly progressed to painting Kolams on everyday objects,” she says.
Most of her art revolves around making Sikku (knotted or twisted) Kolam, also known as Kambi Kolam or Neli Kolam, on home décor items. “They are customised according to the buyer’s needs. They’re also eco-friendly as they’re made from mango wood.”
The hard work behind the art
Deepika, a homemaker by the day and an artist by the night, explains that it takes close to an hour even for painting small products. For large items, she spends nearly three to four hours every day for at least four days to complete the piece.
“A carpenter who works with me takes note of the orders and delivers accordingly. Then I apply a base coat, make the Kolams with acrylic paint and my husband helps in packaging the product.”
In Kolam, the patterns typically range between geometric and mathematical line drawings made around a matrix of dots. They result in art work and closed shapes, integral to every auspicious ceremony in South India.
It takes a lot of patience to draw every Kolam.
The range of Deepika’s Kolam-painted products includes wall shelves Kolam padi (small stairs that hold idols of Gods or diyas), palagai (stools for performing religious ceremonies), wall hangings, wooden plaques, name boards and more.
Art that means business
Deepika’s ‘Home2Cherish’ Instagram page has been up and running for about two years now. She has close to 9,000 followers and her inbox is always flooded with customers ready to buy her products, which are priced between Rs1600 and Rs20,000 depending on the work and customisation required.
She is, however, not able to take up all the orders due to paucity of time. “The door panels that I offer take the longest time (10-15 days) to make as they’re three feet in length and two feet in breadth. One of my customers from Tamil Nadu’s Trichy ordered this type of panel with his favourite characters from the Tamil novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’,” she says.
For such pieces, Deepika first traces the outline and paints the characters. The designs of the frame and background colour are decided later.
Not just ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, she has also received requests to paint the protagonists from the Tamil epic ‘Silapathikaram’ – Kannagi and the Pandya king of Madurai Nedunchezhiyan I (between 200- 400 BCE), the birth story of Lord Ganesha, Rani Velu Nachiyar and Periyar.
It took Deepika some time to reach this stage where she has more orders than she can accommodate. “When we started, there was not much of a reach. We used to get hardly one or two orders a day. In two years, I have sold more than 2,000 products worldwide. Marketing is the most challenging aspect of this business,” she says.
Given the rising demand for her products, Deepika plans to set up her website and hire an extra pair of hands to expand the business.
Living a sustainable life
“Antique products hold a place close to my heart,” says Deepika and continues, “My kitchen is stocked with brass items and most of them belong to my mother or grandmother. Not only do they provide a traditional look to the house, but cooking in them also aids in the good health of the family.”
“My house is on a farm. Our family rears cattle and poultry, and we grow many varieties of vegetables for our use. We use completely natural organic manure.”
The art that Deepika makes — a traditional take on the modern everyday household – sometimes has brass bells and even marapachi bommais (traditional wooden dolls) attached to it.
Ask her if people are interested in buying traditional products and she says, “For almost a decade, many weren’t interested in drawing Kolams outside their homes nor very ready to buy traditional or antique products. But the trend has reversed now,” she says, adding that traditional products are witnessing a rise in sales.
“Even my daughter is interested in drawing Kolams after watching me paint every day.” But that shouldn’t be a surprise because the art of Kolam has been passed on by mothers to daughters for many centuries.
(Narayani M is a Chennai-based writer specialising in longform writing and human interest stories)