Sunday, January 04, 2009

Kalamkari


Kalamkari is a style of textile printing indigenous to the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The name 'Kalamkari' is derived from the arabic words - 'qalam' (pen or stylus) and from 'kari' (work or craft). This refers to the pen-like instrument used to ink the motifs on the fabric. Some say that it was also called Vrathapani before the craft came to be called Kalamkari during the reign of the Golconda sultanate.

Kalamkari is distinct in its colour and choice of motifs and to understand the craft, it is essential to learn about the two main centres of Kalamkari technique based in Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti.

Machilipatnam is a town that has a rather strong association with textiles. The word, 'muslin' allegedly came from the Greek name for this port, Masalia.

A colour-fast printed Indian fabric originated in India along this coast called 'cheenth' (meaning variegated). It was also called 'pintado' among the Portuguese, gave rise to the European 'chintes' that ultimately came to be known as chintz. Chintz is a glazed fabric with floral motifs printed on calico, a style that originated in India along this coast and became extremely popular in Europe in the 1600s.

Machilipatnam was also a prominent port of the Golconda empire of the Qutb Shahis in the early 1500s during whose reign, the Kalamkari style flourished. The designs were even adapted to suit demand from South East Asia. The empire traded extensively with Persia and this influence is evident in the profusion of non-figurative motifs like trees, flowers, creepers and even some calligraphic lettering. All these were drawn free-hand with a 'qalam' or pen, but are lately being block-printed. The very Persian 'Tree of life' is a popular subject.

The Srikalahasti school, on the other hand, focusses primarily on figurative art in the depiction of Hindu deities and mythology. In technique, the Srikalahasti style continues to rely on free-hand drawing even today. Kalamkari panels were used to adorn temples and temple chariots as well as visually supported folk narratives on epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Popular subjects include Dashavatara (the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu), Bhagavad Gita (the charioteer Krishna's sermon to Arjuna) and Kaliyanartana Krishna (Krishna dancing on the hood of the serpent, Kaliya).

Creating a Kalamkari panel or piece of fabric is a process with many diligent steps chief among them being the preparation of fabric with an alum mordant solution that enables the resist-dyeing process. First, the unbleached fabric called 'gaadha' is washed to remove starch and later dipped in a base of ground myrobalan fruit mixed with fresh buffalo milk. The cloth is soaked thoroughly in it and then dried to create a base for the drawing to follow. Outlines of the drawing are made on the cloth using charred tamarind twig. The designs are 'inked' using special pens or 'qalam' with nibs of varying thicknesses holding a reserve of colour. Natural dyes are used where possible. The four prominent colours that are applied in stages are black (derived from iron pieces), red (derived from a root called chavalikodi and a bark called suruduchakka), Yellow Ochre (derived from the myrobalan flower) and Indigo blue (from a chemical called Bengal Blue). Other colours like green and purple are achieved by treating the blue on sections already dyed yellow and red respectively.

Kalamkari fabric with non-figurative motifs are used in apparel, home furnishing, wall hangings and even in accessories like bags.The figurative designs are primarily used as decorative wall panels but lately, enterprising designers have adopted the designs in home furnishings as well as apparel and sarees. 

Pic by author
An edited version of this article was published in the January 2009 issue of At A Glance.