Kalamkari: Ancient Art of Fabric Painting

Kalamkari shawls continue to be an essential part of our heritage. They are often gifted at weddings and special occasions. The beautiful pieces of cloth are widely popular in the Northern regions of India and Pakistan, mainly in Kashmir, and their popularity seems to be growing worldwide.

Kalamkari fabric art

The term Kalamkari is of Persian roots, and is derived from the words kalam; meaning pen, and kari; meaning craftsmanship, collectively meaning drawing with a pen. It is an art form known for its exquisite hand painting on fabrics. It involves hand-painted or block-printed textile and is principally produced in Isfahan in Iran, and the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India.

History and Origins

The art of Kalamkari dates back to 3000 B.C. with some historians believing the art form to have been found in archaeological digs on the sites of Mohenjo-Daro on fabric samples. In the 13th century India, groups of artists called Chitrakars, travelled around to preach stories of Hindu mythology.

They would paint large panels of canvas on the spot with dyes extracted from plants. From there, Kalamkari was used to make wall hangings depicting Hindu deities and mythology that were used to adorn Hindu temples.

The art form changed after flourishing in the medieval Islamic rule, under the patronage of the Golconda Sultanate. The Mughals played a key role in patronizing this craft in the Coromandel and Golconda province. Practitioners of this craft were called “Qualamkars”, from which the term “Kalamkari” was adopted. Kalamkari was highly influenced by Persian art under Islamic rule.

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For a time, it saw a decline but was later revived for its craftsmanship. In the 18th century, people started to use the craft in decorative clothing. Kalamkari shawls were one of the pieces that originated in this era in the northern states of the Indian Subcontinent.

Before that, designs were mainly embroidered on Kashmiri shawls. With Kalamkari, the blend of printed artwork on fabrics saw popularity that continues to exist today. It is currently seeing a new revival and popularity due to its organic dyes as designers are moving away from chemical dyes and manufacturing techniques.

Do you want block or pen work?

There are primarily two distinctive styles of Kalamkari – Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style. The Machilipatam style involves block painting on the fabric whereas Srikalahasti style is a detailed pen work which involves filling in and designing through the special “kalam”. Since the Mughal period and during the time of Golconda Nizams, a new type involving both hand and block painting was also used.

Techniques

The craft is executed with pens that are specially crafted from the bamboo tree, and only natural organic dyes are used. There has been a strict prohibition for the use of synthetic dyes in Kalamkari. The process involves a total of 23 steps for hand painting the textile.

The first step in creating Kalamkari involves soaking the fabric in astringents and buffalo milk. The material is then sundried. Afterwards, the design is crafted in stages with the use of a bamboo or date palm stick pens which invoke intricate details and precision.

In Iran, the fabric is printed using patterned wooden stamps. The glossy effect of the material comes from being soaked in a mixture of resin and cow milk for at least an hour before being dried.

Dyes are extracted from various roots, seeds, plant leaves, crushed flowers, alum and mineral salts of iron, tin, and copper. Colors used in Kalamkari are traditionally bright with primary colors used being red, yellow, green, blue and black.

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Motifs

Themes used in Kalamkari are religion centric. They exhibit and draw inspiration from paintings of famous deities, famous mythological symbols, and describe scenes from folklores and epic classics like Ramayana and Mahabharat. Flowers, peacocks and other patterns are widely used in non-religion centric themes.

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