Kalamkari – The Art Comprising Giant Tapestries to Small Squares

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Kalamkari – The Art Comprising Giant Tapestries to Small Squares


Amongst the Indian textile tradition, the simple cotton Kalamkari fabric had a greater impact and revolutionised the garment trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. The vibrant jewel-bright colours, printed and painted, caught the fancy of women in England and France and became the fashion for daily wear. Kalamkari fabrics, dubbed as chintz, by the English traders, formed a major part of the trade of the East India Company.

Kalamkari is an ancient Indian art that originated about 3000 years ago. It derives its name from Kalam meaning Pen, and Kari meaning work, literally Pen-work. The Kalamkari artist uses a bamboo or date palm stick pointed at one end with a bundle of fine hair attached to this pointed end to serve as the brush or pen. These paintings were earlier drawn on cotton fabric only, but now we can see these paintings on silk and other materials as well. Centuries ago, folk singers and painters used to wander from one village to other, narrating stories of Hindu mythology to the village people. But with course of time, the process of telling tales transformed into canvas painting and that’s when Kalamkari art first saw the light of day. The Kalamkari art includes both, printing and painting.

Tri-Coloured Hand-Painted Kalamkari Chiffon Sari from Telangana

Kalam, means a pen, and the art of freehand line forms the base of Kalamkari designs. The function of a painting was to convey a story, and the artists were well versed in iconography and stories of the epics. The colours used were to depict a mood, for example, rajas (a violent emotion) was painted in red and sattvic emotions were done in white and yellow. The Islamic culture took a larger synthesis of this art form and their inherent love for natural motifs surfaced in the Kalamkari fabrics of that time. The lotus, the palm, the mango, the peacock and the elephant motifs intermingled and blended in their design.

According to the historians, fabric samples depicting Kalamkari art was found at the archeological sites of Mohenjo-daro. But, it was during the Mughal era when this style of painting got recognition. Mughals promoted this art in the Golconda and Coromandel province where skillful craftsmen (known as Qualamkars) used to practice this art, that’s how this art and the word Kalamkari evolved. Under the Golconda sultanate, this art flourished at Machilipatnam in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh and further was promoted during the 18th century, as a decorative design on clothing by Britishers in India. Till today, many families in Andhra Pradesh continue to practice this art and this has served as the prime source of livelihood for them, over the generations.

Superfine Pure Pashmina Shawl from Kashmir with Kalamkari Hand-Embroidery Depicting Mughal Hunting Scene 

The colours used in making these paintings are organic. Most of the colours are prepared using parts of plants – roots, leaves along with mineral salts of iron, tin, copper, alum, etc., which are used as mordants. There are numerous forms and styles of this type of painting throughout the Indian subcontinent. This art involves 23 tedious steps of dyeing, bleaching, hand painting, block printing, starching, cleaning and more. Motifs drawn in Kalamkari spans from flowers, peacock, paisleys to divine characters of Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Nowadays, this art is primarily done to create Kalamkari sarees. The process of making Kalamkari involves 23 steps. From natural process of bleaching the fabric, softening it, sun drying, preparing natural dyes, hand painting, to the processes of air drying and washing, the entire procedure is a process which requires precision and an eye for detailing.

Cotton fabric used for Kalamkari is first treated with a solution of cow dung and bleach. After keeping the fabric in this solution for hours, the fabric gets a uniform off-white color. After this, the cotton fabric is immersed in a mixture of buffalo milk and Myrobalans. This avoids smudging of dyes in the fabric when it is painted with natural dyes. Later, the fabric is washed under running water to get rid of the odor of buffalo milk. The fabric likewise, is washed twenty times and dried under the sun. Once the fabric is ready for painting, artists sketch motifs and designs on the fabric. Post this, the Kalamkari artists prepare dyes using natural sources to fill colors within the drawings. Incorporating minute details, the Kalamkars use ‘tamarind twig’ as pen, to sketch beautiful motifs of Krishna Raas-Leela, Indian god and goddesses like Parvati, Vishnu, Shri Jaganath; designs of peacock, lotus; and scenes from the Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.

The Battle Between Rama and Ravana - Large Size

Kalamkari art primarily use earthy colours like indigo, mustard, rust, black and green. Natural dyes used to paint colours in Kalamkari art is extracted for natural sources with no use of chemicals and artificial matter. For instance, craftsmen extract black color by blending jaggery, water and iron fillings which they essentially use for outlining the sketches. While mustard or yellow is derived by boiling pomegranate peels, red hues are created from bark of madder or algirin. Likewise, blue is obtained from indigo and green is derived by mixing yellow and blue together.

There are two identifiable styles of Kalamkari art in India – Srikalahasti style and Machilipatnam style. In the Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari, motifs are essentially printed with hand-carved traditional blocks with intricate detailing painted by hands. On the other hand, Srikalahasti style of painting draws inspiration from the Hindu mythology describing scenes from the epics and folklore. This style holds a strong religious connect because of its origin in the temples. The traders and merchants across the world used Kalamkari paintings as currency in the spice trade. There was a very high demand of spices like nutmeg, clove, and pepper as well as aromatic woods and oils, which were available almost exclusively in parts of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. The Southeast Asian and Indonesian traders demanded Indian textile in form of Kalamkari Paintings for ritual and ceremonial use.

Blue Quartz Kalamkari Dupatta from Telangana with Buddha Heads

The Kalamkari art of painting is a slow, laborious, gradual process of bleaching, resist – dyeing and hand printing. Unlike other styles of painting, Kalamkari work goes through a lot of treatment before and after the painting is completed on the cotton fabric. It involves several washings, use of mordant, wax, milk, bleaching with buffalo or goat milk and the like. The treatment of the cloth and the quality of the mordant used determine the look and the lustre of the final product. Every step from soaking of the fabric to sketching the outlines, to washing and drying the fabric, is done most carefully, cautiously following the exact prescribed manner. Different effects are obtained by using cowdung, seeds, plants and crushed flowers in the process. The work in hand needs to be washed after each application. Thus, each fabric can undergo up to twenty washings before it is finished. The quality of the finish depends upon many factors, of which the quality of the water used and the availability of local minerals to be used as mordants, are not the least. This has a lot to do with why Kalamkari was centred in these two locations.

The main artist families involved in kalamkari during the 19th century were members of the Balaji jati, a community traditionally involved in agricultural work and small industry. Today, there are over 300 individuals in and around Sri Kalahasti involved in some aspect of kalamkari work, from preparing cloth and dyes, to design motifs and format layout, to final painting and execution. Around the middle of the 20th century, the popularity of kalamkari in Sri Kalahasti waned to the point of near extinction with most artists focusing on agricultural work and other local occupations. However, in the years immediately following the independence the kalamkari art received government attention and sponsorship through the intervention of an art activist, Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya who later on became the first Chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board. The present status of this art owes its place to her unflinching efforts. She helped establish a government-run kalamkari training center in Chennai in 1957 that focused on teaching the techniques and stylistic vocabulary of the art of kalamkari to the new and emerging generation of artists. Regular workshops take place there and are conducted by expert artist. The most recent one took place in February 2011 and was directed by none lesser than the renowned Guruppa Shetty who was honoured by Padma Shri a couple of years back. These facts have contributed greatly to bring about an upsurge in the interest of the designers as well as that of the buyers.

Beige Kalamkari Sari from Telangana with Goddess Laxmi and Peacocks on Pallu

It is amazing that a 3000-year-old craft of pen Kalamkari still survives, unaltered and majestic in its very simplicity. Absorbing various influences like screen printing, the craft has managed to retain its traditional identity and unique character. Whether hand-painted or block-printed, the traditional designs and motifs of the craft speak a language of their own, and it is by recognising this inner voice that the future of the art can be secured. Today, the world over, people are turning away from the use of dangerous chemicals. The kalamkari then, is just the right kind of work. With this one can avoid chemicals and still enjoy colourful fabrics. The Kalamkari artists use natural dyes extracted from the bark, flower and the root of the plant. In recent times, fashion designers’ experimentation with handloom, especially Kalamkari has brought this ancient art form to the forefront. Famous designers such as Sabyasachi, Neeta Lulla, and Gaurang Shah had been working with Kalamkari a lot in their designer outfits. In fact, there are runway collections at fashion weeks exclusively for Kalamkari art form.

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