Since time immemorial, India has prided itself in its vast wealth of ancient painting styles. In that regard, it would be nothing less than sacrilege to leave out kalamkari from the list.
Ancient and ethereal, this painting technique is one of the country’s most prized finds in the art realm. Kalamkari, as a word, is derived from the Hindi term “kalam”, meaning pen, and “kari”, which roughly means work.
Kalamkari can be divided into two types—Machilipatnam (hand-block printed kalamkari) and Srikalahasti (hand-painted kalamkari), of which the latter involves a dreamy sense of precision.
Steeped in mythology, this art form flourished in Andhra Pradesh, and is as old as humanity itself. In earlier times many would go around the village narrating mythological stories (such as the Ramayan and Mahabharat) to neighbors. The storytelling gradually shifted, taking on a more visual narrative, where villagers started pouring out these stories on canvas or cloth. Hand- painted kalamkari also alludes to a term called “pattachitra”, where “patta” means cloth and “chitra” means picture, together denoting imagery produced on cloth. Right from the Vijayanagara kingdom and the Mughals to the British, many dynasties and rulers have been besotted with kalamkari, whose charm sustains even today.
Srikalahasti Kalamkari encompasses hand painting using natural dyes on fabric. The technique presumably borrows its name from the Srikalahasti district in Andhra Pradesh, where it is practiced widely. It is hardly surprising that the art form boasts its own GI (Geographical Indication) tag. Srikalahasti kalamkari depicts scenes, characters and messages from Hindu epics, and motifs of flowers, animals, and birds. Given the intricacy and detail attached to the technique, it follows a serpentine series of 23 steps. First and foremost, the fabric is treated with cow dung and bleach, later being immersed in raw milk, which prevents the dyes from running at the time of painting. It is also soaked in a solution of kadukkai, i.e. myrobalan nuts, which help to keep the dyes fixed onto the fabric. The cloth is then washed (most authentically, in the cold and running waters of Swarnamukhi river) and put out to dry in the sun. Once it is dried, it is adorned with drawings, using a pen made of tamarind wood and bamboo. These drawings are later filled in with colors obtained from natural dyes. Black is obtained from a mixture of water, jaggery and iron scraps, red from madder, yellow from pomegranate peels, blue from indigo, and so on. These colors include hues of mustard, beige, brown, black, olive green and other colors of the earth. It is said that an authentic kalamkari fabric is washed close to 20 times (before and after the painting), and carries the faint smell of raw milk until the very end of its shelf life.
Recently though, the advent of machine-made kalamkari prints has dominated the market. Owing to this, the hand-painted kalamkari has been losing its popularity and getting lost in all the fabricated noise. Machine-made kalamkari are starting to increasingly resemble original ones in look and feel, which deceives the eye of many. However, there are groups of artisans, designers, educators, and activists who are working to revive the true kalamkari, with a separate organization named DWARKA (Development of Weavers and Rural Artisans in Kalamkari Art) being formed for this.