Kalamkari literally means drawing with a pen. Kalamkari motifs typically capture the essence of temple architecture and scenes from the great epics on fabric with the patient and skilled efforts of Kalamkari craftsmen. Traditionally drawn free hand with a bamboo reed or block-printed with vegetable dyes, this unique and exquisite ancient Indian art uses native natural dyes believed to have evolved over the last 3000 years. Samples of this treasured print on fabric have been found at excavations in Egypt, Greece, Central Asia and the Middle East, which suggests that it has been traded overseas. The fabric gets its glossiness from its immersion in milk and resin. Kalamkari fabrics are created in seventeen steps, using only natural dyes, with numerous washes.
Kalamkari prints has their origins in two towns of Andhra Pradesh – Srikalahasti near Tirupati and Machlipatnam. Both centres have had their unique influence on the art. In the 18th century, Kalamkari flourished across the Coromandel Coast – from Machlipatanam through Kakinada, Kalahasti, Salem, Madura, Palakolu, Tanjore to Chengalpet. However, the rich heritage of Kalamkari is now restricted to just a few centers in the country. Machlipatanam produces elaborate block printed table linen and blankets, while the Srikakalahasti craftsmen specialize in temple decorations.
In north India, Kalamkari today is practised in Bagru, Sanganer, Palampur and Faizabad.
Time has also taken its toll of this ancient art in other ways. Although natural dyes are easily available, inexpensive, chemical dyes have replaced them in modern Kalamkari workshops. However, the craftsmen at Srikalahasti have closely guarded their ancient dyeing techniques. Here, wall hangings are drawn free hand, depicting themes from Hindu mythology and culture such as the Ramayana, Mahabarata and the Bhagavad Gita. Srikalahasti also produces free-hand drawn Kalamkari sarees and dress materials. The stone carvings and decorative motifs from the Srikalahastisvara temple built during 1000 AD continues to inspire the craftsmen to this day.
The Mughals patronized the art and traded in it across Asia and Europe. During the Muslim period, Machlipatanam (then Masulipatanam) emerged as a major centre for Kalamkari and catered to Islamic aesthetics using floral motifs, such as the ‘Tree of life’. Machlipatnam Kalamkari caters more to the commercial than the traditional, something which is evident from the motifs and technique used.
The Maratha rulers were great patrons of this art and contributed to the emergence of a new variety of Kalamakari that emerged in Tanjore under their rule.
The British period left its fair share of influence on Kalamkari prints too. Themes from the Bible’s Old Testament became popular motifs for the Machlipatnam craftsmen.
How is a Kalamkari Print made
Kalamkari requires an eye for detail, patience and skill. The cotton fabrics go through several stages of treatment – before and after the paintings are completed.
- Firstly, the cloth is whitened using a solution of cow dung and dried in the sun.
- The fabric then goes into a Myrobalan solution of fruits and milk.
- The outlines or solid spaces in the design are filled in with an iron acetate solution using a brush pen in Srikalahasti and wooden blocks in Machlipatnam.
- Alum is added to those areas that are to be printed in red. After 24 hours, the excess alum is washed off.
- Areas that are not meant to be blue are covered with wax and the fabric is immersed in Indigo. In Srikalahasti, the Indigo is painted in with a bamboo reed brush.
- The wax is later removed by boiling the fabric.
- Lastly, yellow and green are painted on.
- Once the fabric is washed and dried, it is ready to use.
- The dyes come from roots and leaves mixed with iron, alum, tin, copper and other minerals.
The Kalamkari story may have had its origins in narrative scrolls or panels and textile art pieces on cotton. This ancient art is now making forays on a diverse range of products and fabrics like silk. Today, we not only have apparel but upholstery, furnishings and accessories in Kalamkari prints.
Here are some Kalamkari prints from Fashion shows: