Mathematical Art: Kolam

A few months ago I came across this article that explores an ancient Indian art form, Kolam (written கோலம் in Tamil), and its connection to mathematics, gender and culture. This piece was particularly interesting to me as I grew up watching my aunts put kolams outside their doors in the morning when I’d visit India. I even remember having a small practice book to learn how to make different designs.

After reading the article, I became interested in how I might bring this into my classroom as a student teacher. On Twitter, Simon Gregg very helpfully gave me some suggestions.

I kept his idea in the back of my mind until I had a chance to use it. Originally, I was hoping to make the whole “traditional math art” thing much bigger, and involve other student teachers at my school, with us each bringing in math art from our cultural backgrounds, but ultimately that didn’t happen. (How is it that we never have as much time as we think we have?!) I was determined, however, to do something with kolams before the end of the year, and so on June 20th, the last full day of the school year, I made it happen.

I was excited to be able to co-teach this lesson with one other student teacher who was next door and also teaching 2nd grade. We brought our classes together in one room while we introduced the lesson. She talked a little bit about math art she grew up with – Rangoli – which is an Indian art form similar to Kolam, although kolams are unique in their use of pulli (புள்ளி) – the dots around which designs are drawn.

Students spent time noticing and talking with those around them about the designs above – they noticed shapes within the kolams and how the lines went around (and not through) the dots. They noticed symmetry (a new word for many of them), and quite a bit about the number of dots in each row and how that affected the design. Then it was time for students to go back to (or stay in) their respective classrooms and try drawing their own kolams.

This was challenging for students. Even if they could see the symmetry, it was hard for them to actually draw it. Some students struggled with the idea of drawing around the dots instead of connecting them, or drawing straight lines instead of curved. I think students could have used a lot more time exploring the rules behind kolams before attempting to draw one themselves. (The ones pictured above are from a few of the kids who did seem to get the idea!)

I think, given more time, we could have gone much deeper into this activity (not to mention the dotty paper I gave them does not represent the pulli arrangement for all kolams). I felt slightly frenzied and disorganized and not entirely sure what my goal was for the students (especially considering school was over and I couldn’t extend or build on it). However, it was important to me that I teach this lesson even if it wasn’t perfect. My hope is that in teaching about culturally-embedded mathematics, students begin to see the world around them – in all of their contexts – as mathematics, and as mathematics that matters.

Further reading

Here are a few other interesting reads about Kolam and math.