Kalamkari Sarees

Kalamkari word is derived from the Persian words kalam and kari which means drawing with a pen. Kalamkari, which literally means 'pen work', are paintings done on textile with vegetable or natural dyes.Kalamkari is the ancient art of hand-painting or patterning the cloth with the aid of a Kalam or pen using vegetable dyes or natural dyes.


The Kalamkari tradition is more than three thousand years old. The earliest fabric samples of this craft found in the Mohenjo-daro excavations date back to 3000 B.C. Some samples of Madder dyed cloth with traditional Indian motifs have also been discovered in Egyptian tombs during excavations at Al Fustat near Cairo.

Kalamkari tradition is deeply rooted in Hindu religion and draws its inspiration from the divine characters of Hindu mythology and characters. Earlier Kalamkari tradition started in the temples of Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. Huge tapestries and scrolls illustrating scenes from the epics of Ramayana,Mahabharat and Purana are entirely drawn by hand with vegetable dyes on cloth.These religious hangings were draped in temples or on processional chariots called Ratha.

This kind of picturisation of religious stories, supplementing ballad recitals, is still prevalent in parts of India like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa and West Bengal.In Gujarat Vaghari community traditionally make the Kalamkari paintings to create "Pachedis" or temple canopies and hangings. Pachedis were usually printed with a mother goddess figure in the center, surrounded by religious themes or scenes from daily life. Some of the painted cloth backdrops known as "Pichhwais" in shrines of Srinathji in Rajasthan are Kalamkari.

Mata Ni Pachedi
Mata Ni Pachedi


The Kalakmari tradition flourished throughout India from the 14th century onwards, but gained popularity and acquired its name during Muslim rule.The Mughal who patronized this craft in the Coromandel and Golconda province called the practitioners of this craft "Qua-lamkars" and the distinctive term “Kalamkari", for goods  produced in this region persists even to this day.But by far the strongest influence, were the designs from Iran and Persia, much favoured by the Muslim rulers of those days. Persian motifs like the "Cypress tree", "Mihrab", "Almond", 'Tree of life" etc. have ever since been an inseparable part of Kalamkari.

Kalamkari is an antique craft that was well developed and formed part of a flourishing export in ancient times.Kalamkari textiles were all the rage in Europe for nearly a hundred years.Portuguese merchants called this kind of fabric printing “Pintado”. The Dutch called it “Sitz” and the British found it easy to call this textile printing technique “Chintz”. The British East India Company established a flourishing trade in these fabrics in the later half of the 17th century and special orders were placed on the Indian craftsman for producing goods for the European market. The printed calicos of the Coromandel Coast became so much part of the fashion scene that often embroidered samples of garments were sent by the fashionable ladies of London and Paris for duplicating in print. Not only for garments but also for furnishings Kalamkari goods, known as Chintzes, were extremely popular. Many European designs like the Tudor Rose were incorporated into the Kalamkari tradition during this period.

In modern age Kalamkari is done on sarees and dress materials. These hand painted sarees done on Chanderi Silk have a unique look to them by depicting  the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The various patterns used in sarees are floral,animals, peacock, mango booti style, young looking girl, multi color leaves, swans, dancing apsaras and various motifs like trees, birds, flowers, and creepers etc.


The process of making Kalamkari involves 23 steps. From natural process of bleaching the fabric, softening it, sun drying, preparing natural dyes, hand painting, to the processes of air drying and washing, the entire procedure is a process which requires precision and an eye for detailing.

Cotton fabric used for Kalamkari is first treated with a solution of cow dung and bleach. After keeping the fabric in this solution for hours, the fabric gets a uniform off-white color. After this, the cotton fabric is immersed in a mixture of buffalo milk.The cloth to be printed is treated in a solution of Kadukkai (Myrobalan) ground to a fine paste on stone. The Myrobalan nut is rich in tannin and it not only serves to develop the black colour of Kaseem but also acts as an excellent fixing agent for the other natural dyes which are subsequently used. This avoids smudging of dyes in the fabric when it is painted with natural dyes. Later, the fabric is washed under running water to get rid of the odor of buffalo milk.  The fabric likewise, is washed twenty times and dried under the sun. Once the fabric is ready for painting, artists sketch motifs and designs on the fabric.Charcoal pencils are made by burning twigs of the Tamarind tree, and the Kalam made out of a sharpened sliver of bamboo. Post this, the Kalamkari artists prepare dyes using natural sources to fill colors within the drawings.

The basic black dye used by the Kalamkari craftsman is an iron liquor preparation known as "Kaseem". This is made by soaking hoop iron bits in a solution of molasses and water in a mud pot. The solution takes about twenty days to mature when it is decanted and taken for printing and painting. Kalamkari art primarily use earthy colors like indigo, mustard, rust, black and green. Natural dyes used to paint colors in Kalamkari art is extracted for natural sources with no use of chemicals and artificial  matter. For instance, craftsmen extract black color by blending jaggery, water and iron fillings which  they essentially use for outlining the sketches. While mustard or yellow is derived by boiling pomegranate peels, red hues are created from bark of madder or algirin. Likewise, blue is obtained from indigo and green is derived by mixing yellow and blue together.


Only a small number of artisans practice the craft in centres in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.The two major important centers where kalamkari art has evolved are two villages in Andhra Pradesh- Srikalahasti, 80 miles north of Chennai near Tirupati and Masulipatnam, 200 miles east of Hyderabad. Both centers have a distinct style of Kalamkari. Srikalahasti Style, having royal patronage of Hindu kings and being associated with temples, was influenced by Hindu scriptures and mythology. It is having mostly subjects of Hindu Gods, temple hangings, epic scenes and other religious themes in its Kalamkari.  The Machilipatnam style having Islamic influence uses more of flora and fauna as themes in its work.

Present Scenario:

The technique began to die out with the introduction of machine-printed textiles.Unfortunately many a traditional craftsman has taken this jealously guarded secret with him to his grave and no written records are available of the techniques employed and the colour yielding plants used by him in his work. This has been mainly responsible for the decline of this beautiful art form and we have now barely a dozen dye recipes in the place of over a hundred which existed before. The influx of cheap chemical dyes drove the final nail in the coffin and Kalamkari craftsmen these days are only too eager to reach out to the readily available artificial dyes for quick and easy production of temple cloths.

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