A Walkthrough of Kalamkari Art on Indian Sarees

HIt was some years back when I started my journey with IndyVogue. There was the time I had set one big motto of my boutique - one saree, one unique design and one owner. To date I have not changed the motto and I continue to provide my users with the unique collections.

Same happened when I started collecting Kalamkari printed and hand painted collections. I made sure that each print and paint differed from one saree another. No two should be the same.

Each one of them should be positive enough to be exquisite and viable enough to catch the viewers attention. While Pedana and Machilipatnam are the hubs for hand block-printed Kalamkari but Srikalahasti is the home of this unique style of hand painting on textiles known as Kalamkari painting. Encouraged by the Andhra Pradesh government as a center of tourism, this region is famous for their pen-drawn Kalamkari, which came to India around 2000 years ago. 

What is Kalamkari?

Kalamkari is a type of hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile. It is more than just being a fabric used for clothing or home. It is more than textiles to an experience that culture has witnessed over centuries. If you buy a silk saree online with kalamkari art, it shows your rich sense of art and dignity in our deep-seated culture. Not being prejudiced but such art work demands patrons like you people.

Often known as the healing fabric, as the colors, motifs and the narration of magical forms create an aura that heals an individual physically and spiritually. The distinctive feature of this type of art is that only natural dyes are used in this process.

This is nothing but an ancient style of hand painting done on cotton or silk fabric with a tamarind pen. The word Kalamkari is derived from a Persian word where ‘kalam‘ means pen and ‘Kari‘ meaning craftsmanship. 

History Behind Kalamkari

The art of Kalamkari found grew under the patronage from the Sultans of the Golconda region and hence the name came. The Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari paintings is done with the use of block prints. This type of art is also known as Pedana Kalamkari after a small town named Pedana near Machilipatnam. This style also uses natural vegetable dyes which are imprinted on cloth with wooden blocks. The Kalamkari painting involves as many as 23 different steps from start to finish.

Whereas the Srikalahasti style of Kalamkari painting focuses on the painting of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses and scenes from Hindu mythology like the Puranas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. This seems natural considering the presence of grand and famous temples in the vicinity of Golconda which has fueled the proliferation of different arts including Kalamkari.

Kalamkari was also known by the name Pattachitra. The name still survives for a similar art form in the state of Odisha and other states of India. The evolution of the Kalamkari painting can be traced to the time when groups of musicians, storytellers, as well as artists called Chitrakars, who moved around villages telling the stories of the ancient Hindu mythologies.

Kids playing with color in Basanta Utsav in Saree

The Chitrakars gave a visual form to these enchanting stories with their skills of painting. With the use of available natural dyes extracted from plants, they brought alive the scenes on pieces of canvas in an impromptu manner. The inspiration for these were, of course, the various reliefs and panels that embellish the ancient temples of India.

In the middle ages it found its peak, Mughals who patronized this craft in the Coromandel called the practitioners of this craft "qualamkars", from which the term "kalamkari". The art in modern times, has become completely digital. New types and new techniques are introduced and the digital files of kalamkari (pen work) are totally introduced widely all over the regions of India. 

How is Kalamkari Being Done

As per the knowledge nuggets we collected, hand block printing kalamkari is a tedious task. And it involves about 10 different steps.

1. Cotton cloth pieces are bought from mills and cut into pieces.
2. Then the pieces are soaked in water mixed with cow-dung.
3. After soaked well the water is loosely squeezed out and the cloth is laid on the floor overnight.
4. The next morning, the cloth pieces are washed on a stone in a pond and spread on grass and water till evening.
5. The process gets repeated the next day and then all the cloth pieces are washed and dried.
6. Then the next step involves treating the cloth with Myrobalan seeds and buffalo milk to prevent smudging of dyes when painted.
7. The cloth is printed using natural colors as per the required design.
8. The cloth is finally washed in running water and dried, polished as required. 

Watch how the Kalamkari is done in this video from Live History India channel:

Kalamkari Fabrics in Use

No matter there are a number of dress materials and ready made drapes that you have seen people flaunting the kalamkari work. Maybe it is a kurta or kameez and saree - the most common theme that you can see on these clothes is the use of sun chariots, popular deities, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

However, among all the dress materials you see, the sarees with Kalamkari work are the most recognized and most bought. Kalamkari sarees showcase the fine craftsmanship of Indian artists. The wide range of Kalamkari sarees is available with different styles and fabric. They don’t get faded away with the wash, since natural dyes and colors are used.

If you are looking for class and elegance - this handloom saree is for you. Kalamkari silk sarees with block prints are easy to wear. A normal hand washing can shrink the fabric, make sure to dry wash or petrol wash to get better results.

Kalamkari printed sarees are widely used in Cotton, Crepe, Designer wear, Printed sarees, Silk Sarees, Georgette, Chiffon, with Patch work, Chanderi, Kerala Kasavu and much more to name- even the the dhakai that hails from Bangladesh is also sporting the look these days. The mix and match of Kalamkari's works give the fabric a rich look. 

Author Bio

Sumana Bhattacharya completed her Masters in Economics from the University of Calcutta & was working with the Department of Education, Govt. of West Bengal to provide training to the teachers in Government Schools. She moved to USA in 2005 after getting married & is the mother of 2 kids. She is the one that drives IndyVogue every day, every hour, every minute and every second. Salute to her and her undying spirit.