About 3000 years old Indian folk art Kalamkari continues to allure the world with its unique block printed and hand-painted designs.
The bold, bright and beautiful hand-drawn and painted motifs greet the visitors on the road as one enters the dusty bylanes of seemingly sleepy town of Pedana. The town has metres of cloth left to dry almost on every road, nook and corner giving a proof that the whole town is into the occupation of weaving the indigenous Kalamkari fabric. In the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, Pedana is a town located about 75 km from Vijayawada and 9 km from the district headquarters, Machilipatnam.
A look at the History
The Persian name Kalamkari or ‘qalamkari’ is derived from the words kalam (pen) and kari (craftmanship) which translates into drawing using a pen. While there is a mention of these fabrics in ancient scriptures, this art received great patronage during the 16th-17th centurywhen the Golconda Sultanate ruled the Deccan. These wealthy sultans supported this craft and so did the Mughals who were their successors. It was also popular with the British who used these textiles for decorative purposes. Influenced by the Persian school of art, Kalamkari is being practiced for centuries in Andhra Pradesh and the artisans who practiced this art were known as ‘qalamkars’.
A unique craft
Currently native to parts of India and Iran, the craft of Kalamkari is distinguished by the use of natural or vegetable dyes. There are two main styles of Kalamkari prevalent in India. The hand-painted variety that is found in Srikalahasti in Chittor district of Andhra Pradesh involves free hand painting done on cloth which is then filled with colours. The patterns are normally mythological with the depiction of Gods, deities and scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata being common.
The Pedana style involves the production of textiles using block printing or screen printing techniques. The prints are normally large and they are characterised by the use of bright colours. While the patterns are inspired from nature as well as mythology, the new age fabrics of Pedana have images of Buddha and Goddess Durga that have become quite popular of late.
The entire process of manufacture is complex and involves as many as 17 steps with multiple rounds of dyeing, washing and boiling the fabric. The initial fabric is sourced from various places like Coimbatore, Erode and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu which is first washed thoroughly to remove any impurities in the form of grease, wax and dirt.
After washing, the fabric is prepared for the first round of dyeing using the fruits of the Myrobalan tree. The fruits, locally called karakaya, are dried and ground to a fine powder which is mixed with water to prepare a solution. The fabric is immersed in this solution and it is rendered a buttery yellow colour due to the rich content of tannin in Myrobalan. The cloth is then removed and sun dried thoroughly after which it is ready for printing.
The printing is done either by using wooden blocks and vegetable colours or by the screen printing method and temporary colour. After the printing is finished, the fabric is dried and washed. Then starts the process of boiling the fabric in huge iron cauldrons with the required dye along with a chemical called alizarin and a leaf locally called ‘gaja’ which helps the dye to stick firmly to the fabric. The fabrics have multiple colours and a different dye is used for each colour. The process of washing and boiling is repeated each time a colour is applied. The process needs lots of running water and it is ensured that the quality of the underlying fabric is robust and well maintained in spite of as many as 20 rounds of washing and boiling.
Distinctive Organic Colours
The entire process makes extensive use of natural materials like leaves, fruits, flowers and the bark of trees. Dyes are made using colour extracts from fruit peels, roots, leaves and mineral salts of iron, copper, etc. The colour scheme in Kalamkari is characteristic as well with red, blue, black, yellow and green being dominantly used. Women are normally depicted in yellow while Gods are in blue and demons in red and green. The signature red colour of Kalamkari is made from a solution of alum and tamarind seed powder and even Indian madder root. Iron-ore is used to get black, blue is obtained from natural indigo crystals and yellow is extracted from pomegranate peel as well as mango bark. It is indeed credible that these manufactures have retained the use of vegetable dyes and have restrained from taking the easy way out by using harmful chemical dyes.
The Global Appeal
The appeal of the Kalamkari fabrics lies in the richness of its colours. The amalgamation of expressions from Persian and Indian cultures and rapid absorption of natural dyes and repetitive motifs give the fabric a unique look. The Kalamkari craft has found its way to the fashion shows. Fashion designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Neeta Lulla, Gaurang Shah, Shashikant Naidu, Bina Rao and others brought hand-painted Kalamkari to the ramp.
Words: RASHMI GOPAL RAO