“Four-hundred million Hindu women do some form of this kind of art or ritual sometime during the year,” said Vijaya Nagarajan, the author of a book on the kolam and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of San Francisco.
Though I’d always noticed in my own family that the ritual was done only by the women of the household, I realized through conversations with Ms. Nagarajan that it is almost universally closely tied to female experience. In conducting research for her book, Ms. Nagarajan spent time in Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu, where she spoke with people whose gender expressions were fluid. “They made the kolam when they woke up in the morning and felt like a woman,” she said. “They would dress in their sari, put the jasmine flowers in their hair, braid their hair and make the kolam. It’s an indication of gender, even if the gender is fluid.”
In recent years, kolam artists have adopted the multicolor tradition of the rangoli — though the change has been divisive, especially at kolam competitions in India. “If the judges were more traditional, elder judges, the traditional kolam was the best, most aesthetic,” Ms. Nagarajan told me. “But if they were younger women, they would say the rangoli was better, reflecting the fascination with color and changing notions of beauty.”
Srividya Vallurupalli, 46, a software engineer in Danville, Calif., experienced that shift firsthand. “When my mom was growing up, it was only done with white powder,” she said. “In our generation, the colors got added.”
Once passed down through generations of Indian women, typically from mother to daughter, the art of rangoli is now the subject of countless tutorials on social media. Instagrammers such as Kanchan Kauthale, 36, who lives in Maharashtra, post step-by-step photos of their rangoli creations. On TikTok, rangoli videos take the viewer from simple outline to bold pattern at a mesmerizing speed; together, posts tagged #rangoli have more than 840 million views.