Kalamkari is an ancient resist dyed hand painted or block printed art form. Kalamkari was originally called ‘Vratha Pani’ which in telugu translates as drawing or writing (Vratha) and hand (Pani), which would possibly mean hand drawn. The term Kalamkari or Qalamkari was derived from the Persian Qalam (pen) and kari (work or craftsmanship). Kalamkari originated in Andhra Pradesh, Pedana.
According to archaeologists, fabric samples of the art form had been found in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, of the Indus Civilisation, which predates 3000 BC. Kalamkari is believed to have originated through the Chitrakattis – groups of singers, musicians and painters – who would travel from village to village narrating mythological stories. They would regale the listeners with episodes from the epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Panchatantra and similar mythologies. People would arrive in droves to listen to the stories. These stories were illustrated using rudimentary materials with dyes extracted from plants and these episodes were painted on large canvasses. Kalamkari motifs and patterns were seen on the fabrics that adorned the subjects found on the frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora and the Kalpasutra paintings of the Jains.
However Kalamkari found its recognition during the Mughal era. The art was promoted in the Golconda and Cormondel province. The craftsmen were referred to as Qualamkars from where the term for the art form was said to have been derived. The artists who worked on Kalamkari scrolls were also known as Jadupatuas or Duari Patuas or ‘magic painters’.
During the Mughal period kalamkari fabrics, printed and painted, were used for tents, canopies, hangings and bed sheets. During Aurangzeb’s sojourn in the Deccan, the French traveler, Francois Bernier, had documented some details of the tents set up at the imperial camps where the emperor and his general would gather very morning. These tents were lined with fabric with painted flowers with embroidery with silk, gold and silver. The trade between the Persia and Golconda could have led to the demand for figured cloth or Kalamkari fabrics in Persia.
With the arrivals of the Europeans on the shores of India, these fabrics were used for clothing. However the East India Company who had taken these fabrics in bulk quantity had not differentiated between the printed and painted fabrics. The Portuguese called it ‘pintado’; the Dutch called it ‘sitz’ and the English called it ‘chintz’. But it was the French connoisseurs who had drawn the distinction between the printed and painted fabrics with’ toiles peintes’ (painted fabric) and ‘toiles Imprimees’.
KALAM or PEN
The paintings are done with a pen made of bamboo or date stick carved to form a nib. A short spool of thread or hair is placed above this nib, that serves as a reservoir to hold the dye.
There are 2 classifications of Kalamkari – the Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam or Masulipatnam style. A third variant of the art form occurred during the Maratha rule called the Karrupur style.
Srikalahasti Style of Kalamkari
This style is heavily influenced by the temples and typically takes narratives from the Indian epics – The Mahabharata , the Ramayana, the Purananas and other mythological classics. The art is depicted as frieze compositions for large temple hangings and backcloth, scrolls and chariot banners with densely packed characters. The artwork is typically executed with the aid of a pen and is often accompanied with another round one for filling in colors. The art flourished under the patronage of the royal families.
The Machilipatnam or Masulipatnam Style of Kalamkari
This style of Kalamkari originated in Machilipatnam in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. The method used in this style doesn’t not strictly use the pen. The designs were printed with hand carved blocks. This style derives its style from Persian influence. The motifs used include peacocks, parrots, creepers, interlacing patterns of leaves and flowers, lotus flowers and cartwheels. The tree of life motif is one of the most popular motifs.
The Karrupur Style of Kalamakari
This style evolved under the patronage of the Maratha rulers. A symbol of maratha aristocracy, it was during their reign in Thanjavur that this style found prominence in the region. In the 19th century Maratha rulers including Chattrapati Shivaji wore the Karrupur style of Kalamkari. Worn by the erstwhile royals of Thanjavur, this style is also known as Chitra Padam or ‘figurative drawing’ style. The fabric is a combination of hand painting, block printing and intricate weaving.Today the Karrupur fabric is still an essential garment in the Maratha states, especially the bride’s trousseau.
Kalamkari is a tedious labor intensive art form. The fabric must be treated before it can be worked on. Both the styles employ similar methods, however the Kalahasti style is a little more laborious.
a) Preparation of the fabric
The paintings are often painted on cotton. Before painting, the fabric is washed, rinsed, soaked and bleached. This is achieved by treating the cotton fabric in a mixture of cow dung and water to prepare the fabric for the Myrobalam process.
After the fabric has dried it is soaked in a mixture of myrobalam (resin), water and buffalo’s milk for an hour. This also prevents smudging of dyes when it is painted and the fat prevents the color from running. Myrobalam not only gives the fabric its off white hue, but also acts as mordant for the dyes to remain fixed. This process also lends the fabric a sheen.
Once this mordanting process is completed, the artwork is sketched onto it with the use of charred tamarind twigs. The artist then begins the outlines with kasimi (black color), used to outline the figures. Kasimi is obtained from the fermented solution of rusted iron pieces and jaggery.
c) Application of dye
The fabric is dyed first with red. Red is obtained by allowing alum powder to dissolve in warm water. After the red colour is applied, the fabric is allowed to dry and the excess alum is removed by washing the fabric in the river. Some artist also use alizarin for red colour. The fabric is then treated again with the myrobalam-milk solution. The colors are layered after separate stages and treated to fixing. After red is applied, the artisan applies yellow which is obtained by mixing of powdered myrobalam fruit in boiling water or sometimes using pomegranate rinds for a duller yellow. Indigo is applied only after the fabric has been treated with a resistant like wax. The fabric is then immersed in an indigo vat.
Synthetic dyes are seldom used. Natural dyes extracted from the barks, flowers, seeds, peels and roots of the plant are used. The colours themes have symbolic associations, where Indigo Blue was used for the Gods, yellow ochre for women and red is used to depict demons. Red is often used for the background as well. Yellow was obtained from myrobalam flowers or mango bark, red from the madder root or algirin and black from the myrobalam fruit, palm sugar or a mixture of iron fillings, jaggery and water. The raw materials for these were rusted iron, tamarind twigs, alum, cow’s milk, cow dung, Indigo, Alzarin, Myrobalan, Rubia Corifolia or Indian madder and Pobbaku.