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People across U.S. made over 2,000 pieces of Indian art to welcome Harris

Kolam, a traditional geometric art form, often serves as a welcome mat on doorsteps of Indian homes.
Image: Inauguration Kolam 2021 project tiles
Inauguration Kolam 2021 project tiles.Roopal Shah

Shanthi Chandrasekar, a Maryland-based multimedia artist, took the more than 2,000 pieces of decorated cardboard sent to her by people across the country to create a welcome mat of sorts for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in honor of her south Asian heritage.

Using the citizen artwork, Chandrasekar created a composite kolam, a traditional South Indian art form featuring geometric designs often found on doorsteps to welcome guests. She started the project, known as Inauguration Kolam 2021, in December by soliciting contributions on social media, in schools and by word of mouth within the Indian America community.

The artwork was supposed to be displayed at the U.S. Capitol for four days leading up to the inauguration, but the display has been postponed because of security issues. The tiles, clasped together with metal clips, would have taken up about 2,000 square feet.

The project has been featured in a virtual welcome video by the Presidential Inauguration Committee, with hopes that the volunteers will be able to physically assemble the design later. They also plan to compose a digital kolam using images posted with the hashtag #2021kolam on Instagram and Twitter.

The designs are usually made with rice flour or colored powder, but the project has expanded the suggested materials to include ink, chalk and crayons.

"Kolams are a way to bring about positive energy as a person enters a space," said Chandrasekar, who has conducted workshops and lectures to teach people about the art form.

Chandrasekar said the dots often represent life's challenges, while the lines illustrate how the kolam creator might navigate them.

Roopal Shah, the project's co-organizer, said, "It made perfect sense to connect the idea of positive energy and [Harris'] Tamil heritage." Harris has often spoken about her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and how she has inspired her.

Shah said that while the project is a celebration of how Harris "doesn't shy away from" her mixed background, it wasn't intended to be political. The project encouraged people to submit designs using any cardboard lawn signs, particularly those from campaigns, because they are study — even Trump signs. "We think some of the work, some of the healing a kolam can bring, is also bringing people together regardless of your background," Shah said.

Chitra Aiyar, Swati Khurana and Kavitha Rajagopalan, Indian Americans in Brooklyn, New York, who are also mothers of mixed Black and Indian American children, said they were attracted because it was a community project and anyone could participate.

Image: Part of a unique kolam design by artist Swati Khurana
Part of a unique kolam design by artist Swati Khurana.Swati Khurana

Khurana, a visual artist who said she learned about the art form on a trip to Trinidad, designed her kolam to help fight prejudice by incorporating images of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an Indian political figure who worked to dismantle discrimination in Indian society in the first half of the 20th century.

"There is so much momentum right now," Khurana said about the racial and social justice reckoning last year.

Rajagopalan said participating in the project as a virtual group was also a way for their children to connect with their fathers' respective backgrounds from the American South, Sierra Leone, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, highlighting "the diversity in the Black community."

"It was a wonderful way to find solidarity with and within the Black community, while also celebrating their Indian half," Rajagopalan said.

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