Art is something that transcends the borders of time and geographical locations – when paint is applied to any medium, be it cloth, canvas, pottery or anything else, it is meant to not only tell a tale, but also survive as a legacy for the generations to come. India happens to be home to some of the most incredible art forms and over the past few blogs, we have been trying to introduce or rather re-introduce you to some of the artistic gems that have long existed in our country.
In our series on art forms of India, today, we bring to you a blog about kalamkari – a traditional painting form that originated in the southern parts of India, but today, is appreciated all over the world.
The Untold Stories Behind The Traditional Art of Kalamkari
What is kalamkari art?
The word kalamkari comes from a combination of two words – kalam, which means pen and kari which means the craftsmanship. This is basically a style of printing that is normally done either by blocks or by hand. In ancient times, kalamkari chitrakala was known as pattachitra, which again is a combination of two words – patta, which means cloth and chitra which means picture. In ancient and medieval times, this form of art was used to tell stories of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. And even though pattachitra originated in Odisha, kalamkari is practised predominantly in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The art form reached its zenith under the patronage of the Golconda empire and spread from there. What is most interesting about kalamkari painting is that only naturally obtained colours are used to make the paintings.

What is the history of kalamkari art?
Painters and musicians, who were known as chitrakars, would travel from one village to another, telling tales from Hindu mythology and they would narrate their stories and travels on large pieces of cloth with paints that they extracted from plants and berries. Even today, you will be able to find those original hand painted kalamkari pieces in temples and some museums.
It was during the time of the Mughals, that the art form really found its feet and rose to great heights – the sultanate of Golconda offered the practitioners of kalamkari traditional art immense patronage and the artists began to be known as Qualamkars. In a village called Pedana, near Machilipatnam, the art found a true home and even today, there are several families in the village that practise this art form.
Over time, multiple variants of this art form emerged but there were three that were the most prominent – the Machilipatnam style, the Srikalahasti style and the Karrupur style. Given that Golconda became the hub of the artists, and this was a region that was ruled by Muslim rulers, the Machilipatnam style had a lot of Persian influences; the prints were first made using blocks and the finer details would be filled in with pens and this is still one of the most famous types of kalamkari painting. In the Srikalahasti style, there were more narratives related to Hindu mythology including stories from Ramayana and other Hindu stories and most of the work is done using a pen. Finally, the lesser known Karrupur style came from the Thanjavur area of Tamil Nadu and had more gold brocade in it, because it was meant more as fabric for royal attires.

What are the main themes and motifs in kalamkari art?
The themes and motifs that you would generally see in the paintings would often be decided by the style – so while the Machilipatnam style had more Persian influences, the Srikalahasti style was completely into Hindu mythology. In the latter style, you would see a lot of scenes from Ramayana or Mahabharata being depicted. In the later years, the artists started showing influences from Buddhism and Jainism and eventually many aesthetically pleasing elements such as small flowers and birds, musical instruments and even symbols like the swastika started appearing in the images. One of the most popular elements in kalamkari is the tree of life – a symbol of being deeply rooted in earth, while reaching out towards the heavens.

What kind of colours and materials are used in kalamkari art?
One of the most interesting aspects about traditional kalamkari painting is that it was done completely and only using naturally sourced colours. Today, of course artificial colours and dyes are being used, but if you were to look at the work of traditional artists, they will still use only these natural colours. Jaggery, iron fillings and water are mixed to create the darker shades that are used to mark the outlines, alum, cow dung, crushed flowers, leaves and seeds are also used to obtain the kalamkari dyes that are needed to complete the paintings. The effort that needs to be put in for each painting is intensive and extensive, which is why, there are so few genuine artists left in the country, practising this art. Myrobalan, a natural agent often found in buffalo milk is used as a fixing agent for the dyes and same agent is used to remove the smells that might come about due to the use of all the natural ingredients.

What are the different steps involved in kalamkari art?
Although you might see and admire the beauty of kalamkari art, but did you know that creating one piece takes weeks, if not longer, because there are 23 steps involved. The very first step is steeping the fabric in a mix of cow dung and bleach, which allows the fabric to get that uniform off white colour. Next, the fabric is immersed in a mix of buffalo milk and natural astringents, after which, the fabric is left to dry under the hot sun. This process ensures that there is smudging of the natural colours and dyes. The darker shades like black, brown, red and violet are painted on first and once the dyes have set, the fabric is washed multiple times. The next step is the dyeing part, for which any part that need not be coloured again, is covered with wax and then the entire fabric is soaked in indigo. Once the wax is scraped off, the remaining parts of painted by hand. “Brushes” made using bamboo, tamarind or date palm sticks with fine hair attached to one end are used to fill in the details.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions related to kalamkari:

Which state is famous for kalamkari?
The main state where original kalamkari painting is made is Andhra Pradesh, but there are a few practitioners of the same in Telangana, Tamil Nadu and border regions of Odisha.

How many types of kalamkari are there?
There are actually three types of kalamkari paintings – the Machilipatnam style, the Srikalahasti style and the Karrupur style, but the last of these is least known, because it flourished in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.
Which are the motifs that are used for making kalamkari?

Depending on which style of kalamkari the reference is to, there will be subtle changes, but the main motifs were based on Hindu mythology. While the Machilipatnam style has Persian influences, because it flourished under Muslim rulers, the Srikalahasti style was extremely Hindu. You can see trees, flowers, birds, musical instruments and other elements of nature and Hinduism in the paintings.

Which colours are used in kalamkari painting?
Indian kalamkari art uses only natural colours obtained from flowers, seeds, leaves, indigo and other naturally found elements.

Which natural colour fixer is used in kalamkari?

Alum is used as a natural colour fixer for kalamkari painting on fabric.

How is Srikalahasti style different from Machilipatnam style in kalamkari art?
The main difference between the two styles is this – the Machilipatnam style uses mainly blocks and only the finer details are filled in by hand, while in the Srikalahasti style, it is all done using brushes and freehand. Also, the Machilipatnam style had a lot of Persian influences, because it did flourish under the patronage of the Muslim rulers of Golconda.

Who are the famous personalities and artists in kalamkari art?
Even though the number of artists is dwindling, there are still some famous kalamkari artists in the country, and these include Padma Shri J. Gurappa Chetty, K Srinivas Rao and Mamatha Reddy, who are kalamkari artists who are striving to keep the art alive.
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