Kalamkari Textiles: Unravelling Threads of Deccani Cosmopolitanism

The Early Modern Deccan was a melting pot of cultures in the 16th to late 18th centuries. Traders and travelers from all four corners of the world lounged on the Coromandel Coast, looking for business opportunities in the prosperous textile trade of Kalamkari. This article explores the cosmopolitan heritage of Kalamkari, which evolved from the humble beginnings of a temple cloth to a valuable global handicraft that the Portuguese called pintado, the Dutch referred to as sitz, and the British called the chintz

Kalamkari means painting with a pen. In this art form, various designs and motifs are hand-painted on primarily cotton textiles with vegetable and mineral dyes using pointed nibs of bamboo, date palm, or tamarind stick. The fundamental characteristic of Kalamkari is the use of mordants. Since the handicraft uses no chemicals or machines, natural dyes and metallic salts called mordants were utilized to fix the dye into cotton fibers. In terms of process, traditionally designing a Kalamkari consists of 23 steps. It starts with cloth treating, sketching, washing the cloth in fresh river water, developing the red colour, rewashing the fabric, filling the colours with the kalam (pen), and finally, washing once again.(1)

Throughout ancient history, the practice of the craft was so clothed in ritual that it was limited to a select few practitioners for many years. The techniques and dye recipes were a closely guarded secret with almost no written records. Then how do we trace the origins and history of this craft?

While the exact nascence of this art cannot be determined, scholars, art historians, and archaeologists have carbon-dated and stylistically analyzed the fabric samples to suggest that the tradition of hand-painted cotton textiles in India dates back to more than 3000 B.C.E. Thus, a form of this tradition has been around for millennia. In fact, the earliest fabric samples of hand-painted textiles were found in Mohenjo-Daro archaeological excavations. Pieces of Kalamkari-like dyed cloth with traditional Indian motifs have also been discovered in the Egyptian tombs during the excavations at Al Fustate near Cairo. And if you’ve ever visited Ajanta and Ellora caves, you might have noticed the beautiful frescos adorned with Kalamkari designs and motifs.


Discovered in Fustat, Egypt (formerly Old Cairo), this fabric illuminates the textile-based maritime trade that took place between North Africa and Western India in that era. (Picture Source: MET Museum)


The town of Srikalahasti, under medieval empires, created resist-dyed painted scrolls featuring the gods of Hindu mythology. These scrolls, used as temple hangings, were dramatic and in tune with the Katha recital, a folk storytelling tradition. Interestingly, the Chola empire had a thriving textile trade with China and Indochina, where hand-painted textiles were used as currency in the Silk Route trade.(2) This shows the significance of hand-painted textiles and their value in the past, both culturally and economically. 

During the Vijayanagara Empire, folk singers and painters wandered from village to village painting mythological figures on cloth scrolls and singing to spread the word of God. This was the chitrakatta tradition, wherein chitrakars or artists painted on the spot with simple means and plant dyes depicting Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shiv Purana, and Vishnu Purana episodes in an ornate hand-painted style. All this scholarly evidence can be considered the origins of Kalamkari.(3)

According to the 4th generation Kalamkari artist from Srikalahasti, Niranjan Jonnalagadda, Kalamkari was called Vraata Pani (vraata-writing, pani-work) in vernacular Telegu around the 16th century.(4) Srikalahasti, a pilgrimage town situated on the banks of the Swarnamukhi River, 37 km from Tirupati in southern Andhra Pradesh, along with the port town of Masulipatnam, have been the thriving hubs of Kalamkari textiles for centuries.

In early 16th century Srikalahasti, amidst the resonating chimes of Sri Kalahasteeswara Shiva temple's bells and the rhythmic movement of bullocks through bustling lanes, a captivating spectacle unfolded, breathing life into the flourishing world of the Kalamkari trade. There, by the banks of the Swarnamukhi River, often stood men draped in pristine white cotton veshtis, vigorously thrashing a cloth coated with buffalo milk and Myrobalan flower paste. With the sun's warmth, they would swiftly dry the cloth. And, in a matter of days, skilled Kalamkari artists would wield their bamboo sticks, etching intricate designs and infusing vibrant dyes into the fabric.

Meanwhile, to the north of the Coromandel coast, at the mouth of the Krishna River, the port town of Masulipatnam (or Machilipatnam) thrived during the same period. The bustling markets of Masulipatnam attracted traders who marveled at the exquisite Kalamkari garments, carpets, and canopies. Under the Qutb Shahi dynasty of Golconda and their international trade alliances with the Persian Safavid Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Chinese empires, the Srikalahasti craft underwent a transformation. It became known as "Kalamkari," derived from Qalamkar, an artisan skilled in pen work. Unlike the hand-painting technique employed by Srikalahasti artisans, these artists under the Sultanate applied natural colours using wooden blocks on these vibrant, lustrous soft fabrics to carve and reuse motifs of the trees, flowers, composite animal figures, sagas of rulers, and their daily life. 

A little away from Masulipatnam, the town of Pendana became a haven for this art style. In the Early Modern Deccan, the Kalamkari artisans blessed with this generational legacy would be found engaged in block-printing the favorite designs of the patrons and European traders. Dutch and Portuguese traders eagerly purchased these exquisite calicos, adorned with elaborate floral and geometric patterns. The Qutub Shahi dynasty flourished as a result of this prosperous textile trade, with Iran dominating the import of these fabrics.

Thus, Kalamkari grew into two distinctive styles under the cosmopolitan heritage of Early Modern Deccan: the hand painting of Srikalahasti and the block printing of Machilipatnam. Both these town centers of Kalamkari were honored with the Geographical Indication Tag. Yet unfortunately, the clichéd, polarized, and mainstream narrative of Deccan history as rivalries between Hindu and Islamic empires has reduced our understanding of these distinctive styles as binaries between Hindu and Muslim religious iconography on Kalamkari fabrics. Like most information on Deccan’s history and culture, this narrative is a totalizing misnomer of Deccan’s Cosmopolitanism. As an economically thriving textile and historical evidence, Kalamkari challenges this internalized binary consciousness of modern India. 

The Golconda Kalamkari textile housed in the National Museum of Delhi is proof of this cosmopolitan heritage. This attractive Kalamkari, either a thalposh (tray) cover or a rumal (handkerchief), is a rare surviving figurative painting on cotton fabric from the 17th century in the Golconda region. The delicate rectangular coverlets with complex images, perhaps placed over trays bearing gifts to traders and rulers, became very popular in the mid-seventeenth-century market. With floral borders, this figurative painting portrays a courtly architectural scene with a gathering of figures from all over the world. (5)


(Image Courtesy: National Museum, Delhi)


In the center, there stands a fantastical multi-storeyed palace that could be a building or a tent. On the roof, a bird perches, and the lower storey of the balance has a central chamber flanked by two doors. A Sultan donned in a turban, a jama adorned with red and green floral patterns, and a sash tied around his waist reclines royally against a bolster in the central chamber. He sits in a posture familiar from the 16th-century Deccan paintings, with one leg bent but dangling freely and the other bent but brought up to rest. A woman wearing a red jama with a loose green scarf and a European feathered hat offers the Sultan a glass of wine. A messenger seems to be waiting at one entrance of the chamber while a musician performs at the other. Garlands and ceramic vases from East Asia in niches embellish the chamber.

Traders, travelers, and thinkers from the four corners of the world lounge in the palace garden of this Kalamkari coverlet populated with birds, butterflies, deer, and multi-colored rocks and fruits like pineapple. On every corner of this fabric, pairs of human beings are engaged in certain activities. 

On the upper left, a messenger holding a staff and a portfolio speaks to a nobleman or king dressed in Mughalai attire. On the upper right, an East Asian man in a conical hat and checkered waistcoat rests on a Persian carpet, speaking to a pale royal figure in an Ottoman costume who feeds the bird perched on his wrist from a cup. 

In the lower right, two men share wine and socialize under a tree. At the lower left stands a couple wearing garments with Central Asian patterns. The man, possibly a Silk Route trader, carries a Chinese vase. Above them, a small figure of a yogi with long locks, a beaded necklace, and an armband wearing a yogapatta around his legs sits on a deerskin holding a pineapple. The pineapple was a New World fruit brought to the Deccan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. 

This interaction in the Kalamkari shows curiosity and engagement with culture and new items discovered in the material world, like pineapples. It brings together different worldviews tying together curiosity, pleasure, intrigue, acknowledgment of different cultural groups, and human ingenuity to transcribe them into art. 

Thus, the golden age of cosmopolitanism in Deccan from 1565-1680 nurtured the diversity and creativity in the Kalamkari craft. Like any other 21st-century creative economy, the artisans of the Early Modern Deccan adapted their designs and catered to various cultural groups. They prepared canopies with the appropriate mythological designs for their Hindu clients, prayer carpets for the Muslims, and tent-lining cloths with cypress-motif or floral arrangements, which the Persian rulers held in high esteem, and even yardage and hangings of chintz for the Western market.


This Golconda coverlet of the National Museum embodies the essence of many gatherings, found most prominently in its portrayal of people from varied ethnicities and social backgrounds. Unraveling the threads of Deccani Cosmopolitanism through Kalamkari revealed what Navina Haidar in her book "Sultans of the South: Arts of India’s Deccan Courts" noted:

It was not just the peace and prosperity that fostered the burst of distinctive artistic traditions in the principal courts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Deccan. Equally important was the cosmopolitan character of those courts, a function of the Deccan’s cultural and ethnic diversity, often overlooked in mainstream history. (7)



  1. Ahuja, Chahna. “Chronicles of Kalamkari: Unravelling the Threads of Deccani Cosmopolitanism” Modern Mushaira. 11 April 2023, https://soundcloud.com/modernmushaira/chronicles_of_kalamkari_deccani_cosmopolitanism.
  2. Haidar Navina Najat et al. Sultans of the South : Arts of India's Deccan Courts 1323-1687. Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Distributed by Yale University Press 2011.
  3. Spencer, Morgan. “The Fruits of the Loom: Cosmopolitanism Through the Eyes of the Commissioner — the Jugaad Project.” The Jugaad Project, Aug. 2020, www.thejugaadproject.pub/home/cosmopolitanism-textiles
  4. Notes 
  5. Haripriya Krishnamurthy. “Kalamkari  Magic of Creation WCC.” YouTube, 6 Dec. 2012,
  6.  Devare, Hema. “Cultural Implications of the Chola Maritime Fabric Trade with
    • Southeast Asia. Nagapattinam to Swarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval
    • Expeditions to Southeast Asia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009 
  7. Chandra, Sharda. “Kalamkari: The Art of Paintings with Natural Dyes”. Chitrolekha
    • International Magazine on Art and Design, Volume 5, Number 2, 2015. 
  8. PeepulTreeWorld (Live History India). “Kalamkari : A Timeless Art | Traditional
  9. “Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan - Google Arts and Culture.” Google Arts Culture, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/nauras-the-many-arts-of-the-deccan-national-museum-delhi/_gVRsSkMl8_LJw?hl=en



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