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26 February 2016

Inside the labyrinth, on the threshold

Tamil village elder Renuka 'pouring' a kolam from rice flour, Adishakti, Pondicherry, South India Image: Tamil village elder Renuka 'pouring' a kolam from rice flour, Adishakti, Pondicherry, South India  
© Tim Dargaville

Tim Dargaville writes about the background of his Kolam works, inspired by the South Indian mandala-making practice that he and his family came across during an Asialink residency some years ago. ARCKO Symphonic Ensemble performs the world premiere of Kolam for orchestra in their forthcoming concert 'Melbourne Made' on 19 March. Also in the program are works by Brendan Colbert, Elliott Gyger and Caerwen Martin.

Kolam is a ritual mandala-making practice, specifically for thresholds, which in Tamil culture represent the boundary between the experience of outer and inner worlds. Traditionally made from rice flour at dawn, on the cusp from night to day, kolams signal information about the household inside, can mediate ill feeling, ward off the 'evil eye', and protect the inner sanctuary of the hearth from the dangers of the outside world.

Making a kolam is often the first act of the day - a gift, particularly to Lakshmi, the sacred goddess of rice and wealth. Kolam can also be a type of yoga - a daily artistic practice traditionally passed on from mother to daughter, with a myriad designs both traditional and newly created. Curved lines and closed shapes are poured around a grid of dots - common motifs include interconnected stars, flower petals in small to medium to large sizes, geometric shapes of differing proportions, and particularly the labyrinthine form with the illusion of its continuous looping line. These perfect designs, once completed, are left to decay, to be walked over, for passing insects to eat, and are gone by the end of the day only to be reformed anew the next morning.

Around 10 years ago, I spent three months at the Adishakti Theatre Arts Laboratory, Pondicherry, South India, as part of an Asialink Artist in Residence, shared with arts manager and community cultural development practitioner Rosalie Hastwell. We had gone there to observe the company's distinctive theatre-making approach, merging traditional regional Indian with contemporary forms. Along with Rosalie and our (then) 12-year-old daughter Ruby, I saw kolam-making on a daily basis, largely created by local villagers who were the domestic staff of the company. Ruby, quietly inquisitive, sensed the significance of this activity, and learned the craft of pouring the rice flour into various designs from village elders Renuka and Krishnavini, through the act of doing, as communication in a shared language was a challenge. This experience of learning by doing, of making contact with no common spoken language, provided a doorway into an ancient and rich cultural practice for Ruby, and also for Rosalie and myself.

I have also had previous experience of this kind of approach to cultural interaction, of learning by doing, through a long-standing interest in the percussion traditions of South India. The vocal percussion art form of konnakol, a form of rhythmic chant used for teaching drumming patterns, rhythmic process and accompanying classical dance choreography in Carnatic music, follows a similar approach of close interaction with a guide and learning by doing repeatedly. Having lessons with mridanga vidwan T.A.S. Mani at the Karnataka College of Percussion in Bangalore, both on this visit in 2006, and also on a previous trip ten years earlier, involved reciting of strings of rhythmic patterns of increasing complexity, which Mani would demonstrate and I would then replicate, much as Ruby would do in her kolam-making sessions with Krishnavini and Renuka. Labyrinthine rhythmic streams, gradually increasing and decreasing by small units through such forms as korvai and jati, would be gradually absorbed, paralleling the geometric kolam designs that my daughter was engaging with at the same time. This intertwining of experiences, with their sonic and visual learnings, have become a creative fulcrum for a body of new music.

I have created several compositions titled Kolam from these experiences - the first for the resident actor/percussionists at Adishakti using the medium of konnakol, later transcribed in standard notation. Since then, a saxophone quartet for Australia's Continuum Sax, a piano cycle for renowned musician Bernadette Harvey, and, most recently, an orchestral work. Currently the largest and most intricate of the set, this work will be performed in Melbourne on 19 March by the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble.

In each of these works there is a fascination with a quicksilver flow and interweaving texture, threading and braiding elements, as it were. Also a recurrence of the same or similar motifs at different tempi, slow to medium to fast (or as Mani would say 'first speed, second speed and third speed') - a geometric patterning inspired by Carnatic rhythmic processes. At the heart of the composition process has been 'speaking' the rhythmic flow and, thus bringing the labyrinthine architecture of the works into being, through the practice of konnakol.

It is worth mentioning that these more recent kolam compositions display a sonic world that does not originate in the Indian sub-continent. You won't find any glib attempt at 'East/West' fusion. The orchestral work, in particular, whilst exploding the 3-speed miniaturising process of korvai into a 15-minute meditation, is equally an excursion into the museum of favourite orchestral objects. This is as it should be. Living on the threshold.

AMC resources

Tim Dargaville - AMC profile
Event details 19 March 2016: ARCKO Symphonic Ensemble, with works by Colbert, Dargaville, Gyger, and Martin (AMC Calendar)

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