Kalamkari painting is a type of Indian folk textile art that involves free hand drawing and painting or printing on cloth, mostly cotton. Derived from the Persian language meaning ‘drawing or crafting with pen’, Kalamkari is an ancient form of painting that developed in India over a period of 3,000 years. In the present times, as people have started to understand the harmful effects of chemical dyes, authentic Kalamkari crafts come as a welcome change as it uses natural dyes that are extracted from fruits, vegetables and natural items like roots, flowers, leaves and barks of plants.
The earliest records date the existence of the Kalamkari art back during the Indus Valley Civilization. Travelers like Francois Bernier, a French traveler noticed and wrote about Kalamkari and other textile arts of India during his travels. Andhra Pradesh is believed to be the place of origin of the art. The tradition of Kalamkari paintings got a major boost under the patronage of the Muslim rulers of the Golconda region in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This is probably the reason why the name of the style of painting is Persian. In addition, the Hindu rulers of the Coromondal region, during the same time, encouraged Kalamkari artisans to paint for their temples.
When the Europeans came to India, they were also fascinated by the Kalamkari Paintings and so, ordered for a number of paintings to take back home. Their designs although were different from the designs preferred by the Hindus and Muslims.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, two centers for Kalamkari painting emerged - Masulipatnam in Golconda and Srikalahasti in Coromondal region in southern Andhra Pradesh. These centers had similar yet different processes of Kalamkaris. Another style of Kalamkari became popular among the Maratha rulers in Thanjavur, named Karupur. It was patronized by Shivaji in the 19th century and the paintings were done in golden brocaded fabrics that were worn by men and women of the Maratha royal families. In the early 20th century, Kalamkari painting started to lose its patronage since Indians became more concerned about freeing the country from the British colonialism. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is credited for resurrecting the art of Kalamkari after the formation of the All India Handicrafts Board, post independence. At present several efforts are being made to reinstate the glory of Kalamkari paintings as the demand is beginning to increase in the global handicrafts market.
The Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti styles of Kalamkari have subtle differences in their design themes, process and pens. Here are the differences:
Masulipatnam Kalamkari Painting Style – Masulipatnam is about 200 miles from Hyderabad. The Kalamkari artisans of this town worked usually for Persian and Egyptian clientele. Thus, the design themes were usually about nature. You can see motifs that have intertwined elements like flowers, leaves, climbers and trees intricately painted to fill the whole fabric. Along with this, the Masulipatnam Kalamkari uses block printing more than hand painting. The pen used is sharp enough to paint the boundaries of elements finely. The process of Masulipatnam Kalamkari Painting requires 17 steps.
Srikalahasti Kalamkari Painting Style – Close to Tirupati and 80 miles away from Chennai, Srikalahasti showed a unique form of Kalamkari paintings that catered to the taste of the Hindu rulers who ruled the southern areas of Andhra Pradesh. Here the theme of the Kalamkari paintings centered on Hindu gods and goddess. Artisans of Srikalahasti usually painted figures and scenes out of mythological stories like from the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Along with this, they entirely hand paint the cloth using sharp as well as flatter pens, alternately for free hand drawing the picture by the sharp pen and then filling the elements with color by the blunt one. The process of Srikalahasti Kalamkari Painting requires 12 steps.
Irrespective of the differences between the two Kalamkari paintings, the technique remains similar. The process is time consuming and painstaking. The fabric used to paint is treated before, during and after painting or printing. It is also washed and dried as many times. The natural dyes used are usually in the colors of red (from Indian madder root), yellow (from mango bark and pomegranate seed), black (from myrobalan fruit), blue (from indigo flowers) and green (by painting yellow on blue). Here are the processes or stages in Kalamkari painting:
Fabric is bleached using cow or goat dung solution and sun dried for some days.
It is then treated with a solution made with the myrobalan fruits (usage of ripe fruits in Masulipatnam and raw fruits in Srikalahasti).
To prevent the color from mixing with other colors, milk is added in the solution.
Outlines are made with iron acetate solution, using wooden pen in Srikalahasti and blocks in Masulipatnam.
Alum is used as a mordant to separate areas for painting with different colors. Flowing water washes the mordant away after every step.
Colors are dyed in different ways to make the dye stay on the fabric. Fabric is boiled in red, immersed in blue and hand painted in yellow.
To separate colors from each other the hiding portion is covered with wax.
Artisans color portions for yellow and green in the end. Green is basically produced by painting yellow dye over blue.
The final stage of Kalamkari painting involves washing and drying.
During the Mughal rule, Kalamkari Paintings were sold to Persians and Egyptians. Several hand painted cloth pieces are discovered from Egypt, Iran and Gujarat that hints at the Kalamkari art trade during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the English and French trading organizations bought Kalamkari paintings customized with English, French and Chinese designs. Today, Kalamkari Paintings has earned a special place in the Indian handicrafts industry. The tedious efforts taken by the Kalamkari craftsmen are recognized by the world market as this popular folk art form has wide demand. Several tribal and textile art shows around the world showcase Kalamkari art works in one and more forms. Mostly authentic Kalamkari paintings are used as wall hangings. Other items available with Kalamkari paintings are curtains, sarees, dress materials, lampshades and table, cushion and bed covers. Designs now involve global themes including Biblical stories. Notable Kalamkari artisans are C. Subramanyam, J. Lakshmaya, Guru Rambhoji Naik, Sri Niranjan and Sri Gurappa Chetty.