Introduction and etymology
The ancient craft of Kalamkari can be traced back to 3000 B.C with the hand painted fabrics discovered at the sites of Mohenjadaro. Kalamkari or Qalamkari is derived from two Persian words Qalam (Pen) and Kari (Craftsmanship) that literally means ‘hand painting’ designs on fabrics using a bamboo or tamarind pen with natural dyes. A celebrated art form that gave life to the stories that were otherwise told orally.
Long ago, in the vibrant land of India there was a popular form of storytelling where singers and performers called Chithrakattis wandered from village to village, singing the praise of God. They introduced the art of drawing the stories on fabrics and used it as a tool to tell the stories of mythical folklores. Thus, Kalamkari was born amidst the artisans who manifested beautiful fabrics containing the scriptures of the land. In the period between 13th and 19th century the chithrakattis settled in the villages of Andhra Pradesh where the Golconda Sultanate of Hyderabad patronized the art of Kalamkari. We can find beautiful panels of Kalamkari in temples in the state of Andhra Pradesh as the Mughal rulers helped in cherishing the artwork and called the artists ‘qualamkars’ from which the craft acquired the name ‘Kalamkari’. It was also used as a currency in the spice trade that flourished across Southeast Asia, Europe and Middle East where the Kalamkari was done according to the respective nations like wall hangings to the Southeast, canopies and prayer rugs in Meharab designs to the Middle East and tree of life inspired bed covers to Europe.
Srikalahasthi, Machilipatnam and Karruppur are three places where different varieties of Kalamkari is practiced. At SriKalahasthi, it is completely hand drawn using the pen and filled with natural dyes and the designs are a complete representation of Hindu texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata. They also draw the Gods and Goddesses, a symbol of the many temples of the place. The Machilipatnam technique is heavily influenced by the Mughal sensibilities and uses blocks to create the outline of the design which are prominently floral veins. The Karruppur technique was developed in the Tanjore region of Tamilnadu under the Maratha rule where the craft was used as an embellishment to the brocade work of the fabrics adorned by the royalty like Raja Sarfoji and Raja Shivaji.
Making, Motifs and Colors
The process of creation involves many steps that are carefully executed keeping the traditions intact for many centuries. The passage of time has evolved yet rooted to the land. The cotton fabrics used for Kalamkari is first treated in a solution of cow dung and bleach and let to be soaked for few hours. This gives it an off-white color. After this, the fabric is soaked in a mixture of buffalo milk and myrobalans which helps in keeping the colors intact from bleeding. It is later washed, dyed, waxed and indigo vat dyed, removed was and bleached, and further washed on which the process of drawing begins. The dyes used are naturally obtained from roots, plants and vegetable matter combined with the iron and mordants like alum.
A bamboo stick with hair for bristles is used as a pen to draw the motifs. There are two nibs, one is flat edged which is used for dispersing large amount of color and the other one is sharp edged for drawing the outline. These kalams are used for guarding the integrity of the craft. The motifs are heavily influenced by the temples, scriptures, Persian artwork and the religion. The design narrative change according to the style of Kalamkari. The colors are natural hues like red, yellow, blue, etc.
The market is highly polluted by the onset of screen printed fabrics that are mass produced which led to the extinction of this craft. Famous designers and revivalists helped in bringing back the craft by associating with the artisans and producing dedicated collections.