Everything about Kalamkari paintings – the exquisite art form of India.

Kalamkari translates to “pen craft”, where ‘kalam’ means pen and ‘kari’ translated to artwork. This wonderful piece of art is a unique and antique style of craftsmanship done by hand on cotton or silk fabric with the help of a tamarind brush. What sets it apart is the fact that it employs only naturally obtained dyes. The process of creating masterpieces is however extremely lengthy. It entails 23 steps such as bleaching, dyeing, starching, block printing, hand printing and many more.

Kalamkari paintings or artwork is mainly concentrated in Andhra Pradesh, predominantly in Machilipatnam and Kalahasti . Srikalahasti happened to be the main centre of this art due to the constant supply of clean and fresh river water. This art form was the family occupation of numerous rural women and craftsmen in the olden times. As a tradition, it is passed on from one generation to the other. Andhra Pradesh still remains the main hub of Kalamkari painting across the country.

Checkout our Kalamkari art decor.

Brief History:

Hundreds of years ago, folk singers and painters wandered from one village to another, reciting stories of Hindu mythology to the village inhabitants. But with the passage of time, the course of storytelling got converted into canvas painting. This process marked the beginning of this phenomenal style of painting. This vibrant art dates back to over 3000 B.C. As per historians, cloth samples portraying Kalamkari art was discovered at the archaeological sites of Mohenjo-Daro.

During the Mughal era, this style of painting gained massive recognition. Mughals promoted this art in the Coromandel and Golconda province where skilled craftsmen, known as Qualamkars, used to cultivate and practice this art. Under the Golconda sultanate, this style of painting thrived immensely.  During the 18th century, this style of paining was promoted as a decorative art work.

Till date, a number of families in the state of Andhra Pradesh practise and nourish this art form and this is their chief source of income.

The creation:

This skilful art form involves a vast range of 23 steps. The first step involves treating the cotton fabric to be used with a solution of bleach and cow dung. The fabric then develops a uniformly distributed off-white colour as it is immersed in the solution for hours. The second step happens to be the process of immersing the fabric is a concoction of Myrobalans and buffalo milk. This prevents smudging of dyes in the cloth once it is painted with natural dyes. Following this step, the fabric is washed under a stream of running water to do away with the odour of buffalo milk. The fabric is washed twenty times in the similar fashion and kept out to be sun dried. Artists draw motifs and designs on the fabric once the fabric is ready to be painted upon. To fill the motifs and sketches, the Kalamkari artists concoct dyes using natural resources. In order to incorporate fine and minute details, the Qualamkars make use of ‘tamarind twig’ as a pen. The art work inscribed ranges from designs of lotus and peacock to Indian god and goddesses like Vishnu and Parvathi. This vivid art form also depicts the Hindu mythological epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

Colours of kalamkari:

This art form chiefly makes use of earthy colours such as mustard, indigo, green, black and green. The natural dyes that are used in the process of painting are purely extracted from natural resources without the use of any chemicals or artificial matter. In order to obtain the black pigment, the Kalamkars blend jaggery, iron fillings and water. The black colour is typically used to outline the sketches of the drawings. While red is created from the bark of algirin or madder tree, mustard yellow is obtained by boiling the peels of pomegranate. The colour blue is derived from indigo and green is obtained by mixing blue and yellow together. The holy deities and heavenly entities are depicted using the colour blue, whereas demons are portrayed in the shades of green and red. The most common background for this art form happens to be lotus motifs.

Types of Kalamkari:

Kalamkari art is available in two distinct styles: Srikalahasti and Machilipatnam. Both of these centres are situated in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

  1. Kalahasti Kalamkari:

Artists involved in the Srikalahasti style of kalamkari art, carry on to make use of the customary dyeing technique, inherited from their descendants. This small temple town is located in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. This style of kalamkari derives its inspiration from the Hindu mythological stories, epics and folklore. This style grasps a robust religious link due to its origin in the temples. The most prominent characteristic of the Srikalahasti style of kalamkari art is the free hand drawing. The process begins with the artists treating the cotton cloth with the help of mordant and drawing the design outline with the colour black. This is also called kasami. To fill in the images that have been outlined with a bold black colour, naturally obtained dyes of green, mustard yellow, red and indigo. This goes to show is that this art form is not just time consuming and elegant, it also required a great deal of finesse.

  1. Machilipatnam Kalamkari:

This style of kalamkari differs from the formerly mentioned style because it is not exactly crafting with pen, per se. While making kalamkari art using this Machilipatnam style, the artist creates his draft and its basic design features with the aid of hand-carvedblocks. These blocks, once carved, can be used over and over again for a long period of time. 

Off late, two other categories of Kalamkari patterns have come into picture, based on the states where it is created. Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are two primary states in India, where two evolved and different styles of kalamkari is done. While Gujarat borrows its inspiration from mythological characters and epics, the state of Andhra Pradesh tends to depict palaces and forts which are a popular sight within the country. 

The present day scenario:

This ancient and elegant art form has received a good deal of recognition over the years. It is known to portray a wide range of themes with its intricately hand crafted motifs and brilliantly coloured figures. 

A great number of people across the world are now against the use of toxic chemicals in production and manufacturing. Ideally, in the given scenario, naturally dyed art forms such as Kalamkari would’ve been in the boom. Due to the tedious procedure of making these paintings, it is losing its shine. Sadly, given the extensive industrialisation and modernisation, this art form is losing its enigma. The emergence of high technology machine looms and printed textiles also added to the extinction process of this ancient art form.

If not for the Indian fashion designers and their sheer diligence towards reviving this art form, Kalamkari would’ve been lost in the pages of history. Providing a fair chance to these artists to thrive and showcase their talent was a much needed task, which was carried out by the fashion industry. Creative fashion designers get these designs up and going on the ramps which helps target a larger audience. In this way, Kalamkari has been kept alive and hopefully continues to thrive.

Read more about famous Indian art forms.

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