India abounds with numerous ancient rich traditional art forms and one such beautiful art form that we will be talking about today is called the Kalamkari art.
Right from the 17th-century temples in Andhra Pradesh to framed canvases in modern homes to rich and elegant sarees, Kalamkari is a timeless classic and a highly beloved artform.
Keep reading on as we unfold everything that there is to know about the Kalamkari art, its history, and more.
What is Kalamkari Art?
Kalamkari, a combination of two words ‘kalam’ and ‘kari’, when translated literally means ‘pen work’ or pen art. This nearly 3000-year-old artform is majorly practiced in the South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Kalamkari is basically an intricate style of hand printing or hand block printing onto a piece of cloth. It is a meticulous process that involves 23 tedious steps of dyeing, bleaching, hand painting, cleaning, and a lot more. And one unique feature of this art form is that it makes use of only natural colors or vegetable dyes.
Peacocks, paisleys and flowers to the characters of legendary Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata form the subjects for this artform. This art form is majorly done on fabrics and you can commonly find it on sarees, stoles, bedsheets, curtains as well as in the form of paintings or wall hangings done on a cloth.
The Different Styles of Kalamkari Art
There are two distinct styles of this Kalamkari Art- Kalahasti/ Srikalahasti Kalamkari and Machilipatnam Kalamkari.
- Kalahasti Kalamkari
It is one of the two styles of the Kalamkari art and it involves dyed hand painting of the fabrics. The unique or distinctive feature of this particular style is that its artists draw the Kalamkari designs free hand with the use of the ‘kalam’ or the pen. And the main design inspiration for the Kalahasti or Srikalahasti Kalamkari art is Hindu Mythology.
Srikalahasti is actually a small town in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh and that is where this style of the artform is majorly produced.
The process first involves the artisans treating the cloth with a mordant and then they begin sketching the outline of the design with black color. Since each and every design is hand drawn and painted free-style, each and every piece of Kalahasti kalamkari is unique in its own way.
- Machilipatnam Kalamkari
Also known as Pedana Kalamkari, Machilipatnam Kalamkari isn’t exactly pen craft as it involves block painting on a fabric. The designs are already hand carved on wooden blocks, which are then printed on the fabric and then filled in with vegetable dyes.
This style of art is mostly produced at Pedana, a small town located near Machilipatnam in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh.
The popular motifs for Machilipatnam Kalamkari are flowers, creepers and leaf designs. And in order to get a desired design on the fabric, at least two or three different blocks are required.
The production of Machilipatnam or Pedana Kalamkari art is limited to the town of Pedana as well as to the neighboring villages of Machilipatnam, Polavaram and Kappaladoddi.
It has also been registered as one of the geographical indications from Andhra Pradesh by the Geographical Indications of Goods Act, 1999 under handicraft goods.
History of Kalamkari Art
Many centuries ago, groups of folk singers, musicians as well as painters would wander from one village to the next, narrating the epic stories of Hindu mythology to the village locals.
They would illustrate their stories using large bolts of canvases that they’d paint right on the spot with the use of natural dyes extracted from the plants. And that is how the art of Kalamkari was born – through the art of storytelling.
This beautiful art is more than 3000 years old and as per historians, samples of fabrics depicting this art were found at the archeological sites of Mohenjodaro.
But it was actually during the era of the Mughals that this art was highly patronized and the artform got its due recognition. The Mughals patronized this art in the Golconda and Coromandel provinces and the artisans who practiced this art were known as ‘Qalamkars’. And that’s how the word ‘Kalamkari’ evolved from the word Qalamkar. This artform flourished under the Golconda sultanate.
As the art grew more and more popular, the Kalamkari artists modernized their designs and came up with even more ideas and themes. The artists drew inspiration from Hindu mythology, Persian motifs, religious symbols etc.
Since then, this traditional art has been passed down from generations to generations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Today, Kalamkari art is highly popular and one of the most sought after artforms in India whether it is sarees, wall hangings/ paintings, bedsheets or anything else.
Till date, several families in the two states continue to practice this art and are engaged in the profession for generations. It is the prime source of income for several families to this day.
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Kalamkari is quite a tedious and time consuming art as it consists of not one, not two but a total of 23 steps! And right from the first step to the last one, everything requires skill, precision and a keen eye for detailing.
- A basic layout is first sketched out on the fabric- the leading figures are sketched first and then the rest. All of the other details then subsequently get filled in by the pen.
- A wooden table is then taken and a woolen blanket is spread on the table. This doesn’t just provide a smooth work surface but also absorbs the seeping colors through the reverse side. The Kalamkari fabric is then placed on it.
- The kalam or the pen is then used to make outline drawings as well as the other line details. While black is used for the outlines, a mordant (iron or alum liquid) is used for filling the colours.
- The whole painting process needs to be done with utmost precision so that there is no smudging.
- Then, the fabric is taken to the river and held out in the flowing river with two people holding each one of its ends. It is held like that for about 5 minutes.
- After about 5 minutes, the fabric is taken out, shaken well and dipped back again in the water. This helps to get rid of the excess mordant.
- The fabric is then squeezed well and this dipping and squeezing procedure is repeated a few times. All of its impurities are removed by this and the mordant painting is evened out. The fabric is then inspected for any spreading or blotching of the mordant.
- If any blotching or spreading is there then it is corrected by applying raw lemon juice to the affected areas.
- The next step in the Kalamkari process involves a large copper vessel getting filled with water in order to soak the cloth in it.
- A substance called Pobbaku is then mixed in the water and the water is then brought to a boil. A few more substances are added and the water is stirred continuously.
- Then, the cloth gets immersed in the boiling water and it is kept immersed until it boils over.
- The cloth is then taken out, cooled down with some cold water and then taken to be washed in the flowing river. After that, the cloth or fabric is spread out on the riverbed for a few hours, with water getting sprinkled on at intervals to keep it wet.
- After this step, the cloth gets squeezed and is beaten on the stone twice so that the fugitive color gets removed.
- Then, for bleaching the fabric, either cow dung or sheep dung is used along with water. This mixture is kept in clay and then the fabric is dipped in this solution. It is then taken out, squeezed and then kept aside. If fresh dung and water are required, they are added as per the need. The cloth or fabric is kept immersed in the mixture throughout the night.
- Then, the following morning the cloth gets taken out, beaten and then gets taken to the river to be washed under flowing water. It is then dried on the sand and then exposed to the sun.
- This bleaching process needs to be continued for 4 to 5 days so that the non-mordant portions become white. After the bleaching process is finally over, the cloth or fabric is then dipped in a milk solution. This enables the dye colors to set properly in the required areas and prevent them from running into each other.
- It is then painted yellow (either the extract of myrobalan flower or the rind of pomegranate) with the round tipped pen.
- After it has been painted yellow, the cloth is again washed and dried in the same way.
- A substance called surruduchakka, which is brown in color, is then used to deepen the red color which was obtained from Pobbaku. Indigo mixed with a little alum provides the blue color. Mixing red with blue yields violet and blue with yellow gives green. Likewise, black is obtained from mixing jaggery, water and iron filings.
- Finally, the cloth is once again washed thoroughly and dried.
This is majorly the process for Kalahasti Kalamkari. And as for the Machilipatnam Kalamkari, the free hand drawing is replaced with making of wooden blocks and then block printing it on the fabric.
This is the tedious Kalamkari process that goes behind crafting each and every piece. Well, it is an art in its true essence, isn’t it?
Kalamkari Designs and Motifs
As for the Kalamkari designs, they draw inspiration from flowers, animals, the tree of life, bird figures etc. and these can very commonly be seen as depictions in Kalamkari work.
Similarly, characters from the Hindu epics such as Ramayan and Mahabharat are also common depictions for the Kalamkari art. Persian motifs are also quite common for this artform.
Basically, all of these motifs form the basis of the Kalamkari designs and they all beautifully come together and give life to the artform.
Kalamkari Art Today
Kalamkari has a blooming market not just in India but outside of India as well. It is a celebrated art form and Kalamkari products can be found for sale at leading handicraft exhibitions as well as online.
However, in these modern times, the handwork is often getting replaced by digital work. But Kalamkari is an art that is still very much in trend. It can be seen everywhere whether it is on sarees, dress materials, stoles, bedsheets or other modern fashionable attires.
From its recognition during the Mughal era to today, the art has come a very long way. Around a decade ago, the Kalamkari art was also seen losing its shine owing to the emergence of high technology machinery and power looms. While the artform was almost at the verge of extinction, it was the Indian fashion designers who all came together and helped to revive the Kalamkari industry by helping out the artisans who practiced this art.
As a result, the Kalamkari industry got back on its tracks and bloomed in all its glory once again.
While real Kalamkari products might come with an expensive price tag, it is 100% justified for the long process and the efforts that go behind making it. So, buying a true Kalamkari piece means respecting our traditional art and the artisans toiling hard to keep it alive.
We hope that this article cleared your doubts on what kalamkari art is, the history of kalamkari history, kalamkari process and more. So, the next time that you set your eye on a piece of Kalamkari art, you know the story and the hard work that has been put behind it.
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Mir Saeid is the Growth Hacker of Kashmirica, a brand that is poised to ‘Bring Exclusives from Kashmir to You’. An enthusiastic cultural entrepreneur, he is driven by a passion to bring about a social impact. He has a Masters in International Business from the University of Bedfordshire and has worked in leading Marketing positions at various SMEs and Startups for 8+ years.
A polyglot who English, Arabic, Urdu & Koshur, Mir loves traveling, reading, researching, and writing. And that is why he keeps writing about art, culture, life, philosophy, health, and just about everything else he knows.