Kalamkari : Penmanship Of Cultural Glory

The historical textile tradition of the Kalamkari as magnificently depicted in murals, paintings, handcrafted textiles and its cultural sync with social ethics, morals and societal status is yet another wonderment for anyone with a genuine fondness for India’s dynamic cultural past or art in general. Kalamkari, wherein kalam represents a pen and kari stands for work, found an active presence around the Coromandel Coast in Andhra Pradesh back in the medieval times wherein Sri Kalahasti and Machilipatnam became the prime centers for the creation of this heritage art. Significantly, Sri Kalahasti was a crucial Hindu pilgrimage site because of the Sri Kalahastisvara temple which is symbolic for its architectural grandiose and ardent devotion to Lord Shiva. The Kalamkari textiles herein were established  as canopies and hangings as a background to the installed images of deities as they deicted  breathtakingly beautiful motifs of scenes from the Krishna Raas-Leela, Indian divinities like Parvati, Vishnu, Shri Jaganath; lotus, peacocks, amidst other scenes from the Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata. The craft found a more boosted support  under the rulership of the Pallavas  (6th – 9th Century AD) , the Cholas (9th -13th AD) and the  Vijayanagara Empire (13th-17th Century AD).

The topography of Andhra Pradesh supports the community of craftsmen producing this historic textile as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are the textile hubs of cotton production which happens to be the primary fabric used herein this textile. Also, the  presence of water bodies in the vicinity of Sri Kalahasti and Machalipatnam enables an efficiency in the production of the  Kalamkari textiles.

The Penman and his Penmanship :

The journey to bringing the Kalamkari’s textile glory into fruition involves an array of exhaustive stages. From bleaching the fabric, to softening it, drying it under the sun, preparation of the  natural dyes, hand painting, to drying it in air and washing it; the entire rigour of birthing the kalamkari fabric is truly a testimony of a heritage skill craft perfected over centuries.

The cotton fabric employed for Kalamkari is firstly treated with a mix of cow dung and bleach for hours, to render a uniformly spread off-white color. Then this fabric is immersed in a mixture of buffalo milk and Myrobalan to avoid the possibility of  smudging of dyes when it will be painted with natural dyes. This is followed by the washing of the fabric multiple times  under running water to remove the odor of the buffalo milk and is the dried  under the sun. Once it is ready for painting, the artists begin with sketching the envisioned motifs and designs on the fabric. This is followed by filling the desired  colors  within the designs using naturally prepared dyes.

Kalamkari pen is crafted from bamboo reed, sharpened at one end and a piece of cloth is rolled on the stick with a thread tied around it to secure the cloth. The cotton cloth works as a filler when dipped in the dye and then applied over the fabric. The kalam is dipped in the kasim kaaram-  an Iron black solution to absorb the dye which is made by mixing cane & palm jaggery, rusted iron filings with water. The dye color touches the cloth as the artisan slowly squeezes the cotton ball of the kalam to release the color. This black hue darkens upon reacting with the Myrobalan treated cloth. The excess colour on the outline is removed by a piece of  cloth by gently pressing it upon the concerned portions on the fabric.The pen used to outline is much sharper as compared to the one used to colour bigger portions. Kalamkari maggam,(a wooden frame) is used during the  painting process which helps in securing the cloth on both the ends.

Colors, motifs and styles:

The craft of Kalamkari employs earthy colors like indigo, black, mustard, rust and green. The craftsmen  extract black color by mixing jaggery, water and iron fillings which they use for outlining the sketches. Mustard or yellow color is derived by boiling the pomegranate peels and red hues are obtained from the bark of madder. Blue is acquired from indigo and green is procured by mixing yellow and blue together.

Traditional themes are depicted from the Hindu mythological epics. These fabrics are often used as hangings in temples as well. The motifs feature temple scenarios, wall panels, rural activity based scenes, images of deities like Ganesha, Rama, Krishna, and Arjuna. Other motifs are figures of trees, birds, and flowers.

There are two major styles of Kalamkari art in India –the Srikalahasti style and Machilipatnam style. The  Srikalahasti style of painting is heavily inspired from the religious themes and the Hindu mythology depicting scenes from the epics and the historic folklore. This style, thereby is religiously significant because of its roots in the temples.

In the Machilipatnam style , a more secular philosophy is pursued wherein the motifs are printed with hand-carved traditional blocks along with hand painted intricate details.

The textiles produced in  Machlipatnam also  reflected the social milieu of the contemporary times depicted via  geometric figures, animals,  plants, creepers, women etc. The craft saw a vigorous production especially during the fifteenth and the seventeenth century when the Machalipatnam port bustled with great economic activity.

The economic and socio-cultural  doom unleashed by machine led screen printing, lack of sensitivity to heritage crafts, and the notions of economic viability heavily impede the pursuit of sustaining the legacy of artforms such as Kalamkari amidst other historic traditions of textile production in India. But what is remarkably noteworthy is the ambitious thrust given by both government and temple administration of the Southern states in India to passionately promote the craft of Kalamkari amongst youth and secure the intellectual trade rights of the Kalamkari craftsmen.

(Authored by – Vandana Bhatia )