In 2019, during a collaboration with the Pittsburgh-based American artist and botanical illustrator Ann Rosenthal (Sachdev and Rosenthal 2019), I had to provide Rosenthal with information about rice. We were writing a collaborative piece on kolam floor art, where she was creating drawings and I was writing the text for a chapter on botanical aspects of rice, within the context of its use in the kolam. Rice as a form of botanical material is encountered in powdered form through kolam floor art practices, and seen widely outside homes in South India. The chapter on rice that Rosenthal and I were collaborating on was titled ‘Oryza Sativa’, the botanical name for the rice plant. Rosenthal asked me a question I was totally unprepared for. She wanted to know which specific rice variety to illustrate. Although I had been exploring floor art for several years through my documentary photographic practice, it never occurred to me that a specific rice variety might be associated with the kolam rice powder. Rosenthal wondered whether there was any particular rice variety, for example basmati, that was commonly used in kolam. She wanted to be careful to draw the correct variety that was used.
Rosenthal’s query compelled me to engage in discussions with the flour mill owners and shopkeepers in my neighbourhood, as well as research the internet on different rice varieties. I discovered that lachkari raw rice was also called kolam rice, or bullet rice; that ADT 37 was not generally used in kolams; and that the sona masuri rice variety that I ate daily was often used in making kolam powder. The flour mill owners said that basmati rice was too expensive a variety to use. Also, instead of rice, nowadays a mixture of white chalk powder and sawdust was more popularly used to make the kolam.
Rosenthal’s question had opened up a Pandora’s box for me on the botanical aspects of rice. It drew my attention to the different kinds of botanically related questions that the practices of floor art could open up, and to the immense pedagogic potential that these practices offered for the study of plants.