The eastern coast of India has been a
prominent region in development of arts through out the history. Unlike the
western coast, the eastern coast was relatively safe from invasions, resulting
in longer eras of peace and prosperity. The region became cradle to several
arts that have survived till date. One among them is the hand-paintings of
Dating back to 1000 BC and rising to
prominence during the days of Mughals around the 16th century, this
art involves the use of pen to paint on cotton fabrics. Infact, ‘Kalam’ means
pen and ‘kari’ stands for craftsmanship in several native languages. The
artists used bamboo or date-palm sticks which was pointed at one end and
attached fine hair to this and used it as a brush. Cotton is the most commonly
used fabric to paint upon, with silk fabrics gaining popularity lately.
There are three major forms of the
art, all scattered along the easrtern side of India. Each has its own unique style
1. Sri Kalahasti Style – Developed
around the temple town of Sri Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh of India, these
paintings are made using pen. The most commonly depicted pictures are that of
the scenes from ancient Hindu epics – Mahabharatha and Ramayana. The temples
acted as patrons and allowed the artists to settle near the temple and supplied
2. Machilipatnam Style – A more
modern avatar of the art, this developed around the port town of Machilipatnam
(aslo called as Masulipatnam) in Andhra Pradesh. This style uses handblocks in
addition to pens. Designs are printed using the blocks while fine details are
added using the pen. This art also has high influence from Periain and French
styles of paintings, as it was under direct control of both Golconda nawabs and
the French colonists for significant time.
3. Karrupur Style – The Marathas who
occupied the temple town of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu breifly in the 18th
century, introduced the art to region. The art was used as to decorate fabrics
which was used as sarees and dhotis by the royal family. Unfortunately, this art lost its prominence
after the fall of the Marathas.
A new style is emerging on the other
side of the Indian Coast. Artists in Gujrath, the western-most state of India,
are learning the art and giving it a new charm. Mythological figures and
historical scenes are depicted.
Kalamkari art was also a major export
item during most of its existence. Different patterns were designed to cater
the demand of foreign cultures. The Middle-Eastern markets were interested in
prayer rugs, canopies and door covers painted with Maharab designs, animal and
floral motifs. The Europeans on the other hand loved the tree-of-life bed
covers and dress fabrics that resembled crewel work. East Asian countries
showed affinity towards materials used to make dresses and jackets, while
patterned hip and shoulder wraps and decorative wall hangings were much sought
after in South-East Asian countries.
Spice traders from other countries
used Kalamkari used Kalamkari paintings as currency too. Traders from South
East Asian brought exotic woods, oils and spices and exchanged them for the
Kalamkari, like most other native
painting arts, is highly demanding in terms of resource and time. The process
typically involves 22 steps, sometimes reaching 27 steps depending of the
fabric. Only natural dyes and fibres are used.
The Kalamkari fabric is bleached,
softend and let to dry in the sun. Generally used fabrics is cotton, but silk
is used regularly too. The fabric is first treated with cow waste and bleach.
This imparts a uniform shade of white to the fabric. It is then dipped in
mixtures to avoid the smudging of dyes. The fabric is then repeatedly washed
and dried in the scorching heat to dry. The tropical climate of peninsular
India makes sure there is ample sunlight for quick drying. Designs are painted
first and then are filled with striking colors.
Dyes are blended from jaggery, iron
fillings, turmeric, indigo, crushed flowers, seeds and several other sources.
For example, mustard or yellow color is obainted by boiling pomogranate peels
while red hues are created from barks of madder or algirin. Alum plays a
pivotal role as it used both in making the dyes and treating the faric as it ensures
stability of colors on the fabric. The fabrics are soaked in a mizture of resin
and cowmilk to give it a characteristic shine. After application of every layer
of color, it needs to be dried.
As each piece is handcrafted, no two
Kalamkari pieces are the same even if crafted by the same artisan depicting the
same subject. Perfection is demanded at every single step.
Kalamkari in the Modern Days
Once considered a prized possession,
true Kalamkari fabrics are now on verge of extinction. Andhra Pradesh has the
highest concentration of Kalamkari artists with Gujrath joining lately. The
designs were replicated very quickly and economically and on a massive scale
with the advent of modern technologies.
However, with the increase in income
of the Indian population, the original art is slowly regaining its demand. Both
the elder and younger generations are showing interest in the handmade fabrics
of Kalamkari, which is now used to make sarees and kurtis. The vibrance and
naturalness of raw materials is catching the attention of fashion-savvy
population. Several fashion strived hard and have succeeded in bring this art
back to limelight and give it the attention and love that is deserved.