Kalamkari- Timeless artform of ancient India - MeMeraki.com

Kalamkari is a very important form of hand-painted and printed textile from Andhra Pradesh. The word Kalamkari originated from the word Kalam which means pen and Kari which also means work. Kalamkari paintings were done using vegetable colors, depicting mythological scenes, floral motifs, trees of life, birds, animals, etc. The artists were inspired by temple architecture and its surroundings, the natural beauty of mountains, and the natural resources of Andhra Pradesh.

Andhra Pradesh is a center of the arts of Kuchipudi dance, melodious songs, and various crafts, of which Kalamkari is one of the most significant arts. It is about three thousand years old. It took birth in a village called Masulipatnam, 200 miles east of Hyderabad. This form of art spread and settled down in the temple town of Srikalahasti, 80 miles north of Chennai near Tirupati

You can have a look at our kalamkari collection here.



Masulipatnam style of painting

Masulipatnam designs are Iranian with intricate and delicate forms. The old traditional block prints were largely used with Persian motifs like trees, creepers, flowers, and leaf designs. Later came the Dutch influence when there was an increase in demand from Europe. This style of Kalamkari was mainly done on bed covers, curtains, and also garments, as it was a popular demand from the west. In the nineteenth-century block prints reached their peak and even today it’s largely produced for Indians and foreigners. 


Krishna: Kalamkari painting by Harinath.N


Srikalahasti's style of painting

In the Srikalahasti style, temples were a major inspiration. The art flourished under the patronage of the temples with their demands for scrolls and wall hangings with story figurative and narrative components. It richly displayed episodes from the Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and other Mythological stories for their themes painted in the panels with a script running along the border. The subjects chosen to paint were restricted to Gods such as Krishna, Brahma, Ganesha, Durga, Kiratavinyaarjuna, Lakshmi, Rama, Shiva, and Parvathi.


                                                           The Peacock, Kalamkari painting by Sudheer

Process of making Kalamkari

The Kalamkari art of painting undergoes a laborious, slow process of resist–dyeing and hand printing. Many stages have to be undergone before the final results are achieved. Unlike other styles of painting, Kalamkari painting demands a lot of treatment before and after the painting is completed on the cotton fabric. Depending on the treatment of cloth, or the quality of the mordant, the colors change accordingly. Every step from soaking the cloth, to sketching the outlines to washing and drying the cloth, is done carefully and correctly. All the world over people is turning away from dangerous chemical dyes. The harmless, naturally dyed fabrics are used for Kalamkari painting. The artists believe in using natural dyes and extracting them from bark, flower, and root. One would be stunned to know that the color red is obtained by using the Indian madder root, yellow from the pomegranate seed or even mango bark, and the color black from myrobalan fruit. No chemical dyes are used in producing Kalamkari colors! The process used for both schools of Kalamkari painting is more or less the same. The only major difference is that Srikalahasti paintings depend entirely on the brush-like pen whereas the Masulipatnam style uses block-printing procedures. The process done in Srikalahasti is more tedious. The cloth is treated and washed twice, and two or three times alum is painted.


Airavata, Kalamkari painting by Sudheer



Stages in Kalamkari


1. Cloth is first whitened by immersing it in a solution of goat or cow dung and letting it dry in the sun for a few days

2. Cloth is then treated in Myrobalan solution. Ripe fruits are used in Masulipatnam, raw ones in Srikalahasti. Milk is then added to the solution to prevent the color from spreading in the next step

3. The iron acetate solution is filled in, either for solid spaces or as outlines, with a brush – pen in Srikalahasti, and wooden blocks in Masulipatnam

4. All the areas meant to be red are painted or printed over with the alum solution as a mordant. Mordant is a substance that fixes the natural dye on the material

5. After applying alum, the cloth is kept for at least 24hours. Then the excess mordant is removed by washing the cloth under flowing water

6. The dyeing is done for the red color by boiling with the red coloring materials.

7. All the portions which are not to be blue are covered with wax

8. The waxed cloth is immersed in the indigo solution. In Srikalahasti, the blue is painted with the kalam. Then the wax is removed by boiling the cloth in water

9. The yellow is painted on to produce yellow and green

10. The cloth is finally washed again and dried before the final colors emerge


Ganesha, Kalamkari painting by Sudheer


Vegetable dyes are the colors of India; the lovely green of the henna leaves and the deep blue of the indigo are among the hues that jostle for attention on the color palette used in kalamkari. The whole process is a natural and scientific one. Many of the dyes are extracted from materials that have medicinal properties. Myrobalan, a popular herb in Indian medicine, is a valuable mordant & dye, crucial to the Kalamkari Craft which gives the cloth strength and protects the body. The Color black is obtained from myrobalan fruit. The fruit known as kadukkai is commonly used as a mordant in all vegetable dye processes. The red dye is obtained from barks of manjistha( Madder) which are used for treating rashes and abrasions; the yellow is from turmeric which shields the body from germs. Mango bark dust & leaves & skin of pomegranate also impart a beautiful yellow color. Depending on the treatment of cloth, or the quality of the mordant, the color changes accordingly. Another herb surulpattal, which is a purplish-brown dye, is added with manjistha to deepen the red. Colors Like blue & yellow are cold applications. A beautiful dark blue is derived from indigo which is a vat dye. Extract of catechu, known in native parlance as kasikatti, imparts a strong brown & chocolate shade. The harmless, naturally dyed fabrics are used for Kalamkari paintings. In this process only four colors are used. No chemical dyes are used to produce Kalamkari colors. Among the vegetable dyes, the basic colors of black, red, and blue are the most prized. 


                                                                                                Ganesha Kalamkari painting by Harinath.N


Kalamkari's pictures drew inspiration from a variety of mythological subjects. Complete epics, like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata & the Bhagavata Purana were presented in pictorial form. Such Kalamkari scrolls were huge in dimension, sometimes even ending up to 30 feet in length 7 3-4 feet in width. These epics were depicted in segments in which each episode was illustrated with appropriate pictures & descriptive headings written in Telugu or Tamil. Two distinctive streams can be recognized in the Kalamkari temple tradition. One is the earlier folk form, & other sophisticated form, executed with greater attention to craftsmanship & layout. In Kalahasti, the paintings are full of detail, color & movement. Even when the painting is a single panel, the multiplicity of figures points to the larger dimensions of the single episode. In some paintings, the emphasis is more on mythology than on technical perfection as is seen in the painting of the Kaliya Mardanam. The borders are much more elaborate. They have a strict adherence to the pen or the kalam & even border designs are not repeated. There is no shading or an attempt at perspective. The temple tradition of Kalamkari had a larger role to play than the mere making of pictures. The ceremonial requirements of the temple, like a manager, canopies, the cylindrical thombiasto be tied to the processional chariots, the banners & flags which were carried during the procession, were all made by kalamkari craftsmen. The ceremonial flags had auspicious figures like the bull or the hamsa, the torans painted in vibrant colors. The lotus, the palm, the mango, the peacock & the elephant were adopted as elements in the designs. The ‘tree of life was a very important symbol. Kalamkari fabrics with non-figurative motifs are used in apparel, home furnishing, wall hangings, and even accessories like bags. The figurative designs are primarily used as decorative wall panels but lately, enterprising designers have adopted the designs in home furnishings as well as apparel and sarees.


Future of Kalamkari 

The kalamkari carried on & shaped by village artisans as a living tradition is now in a process of disintegration. It is in the dusty piles that kalamkari paintings can now be discovered in various government emporia and fails to catch the attention of the discerning buyer. 

kalamkari saris have a good market and the wall hangings do well too. kalamkari artists have a bright future. 

There are crores of engineers and doctors in the country but only handful of kalamkari artists. Such a sense of self-worth and the blend of the savvy and sincere is what reassure those concerned about the future of their craft traditions.

The ebb and flow of kalamkari popularity continues to plague the artistic community at Sri Kalahasti, however at the moment their is an upsurge in interest in the art form by designers. 

The Kalamkari heritage with its beautiful & vibrant colors, its Eco-friendly nature, has a great potential as a vital component in the fashion trade. Proper design inputs would go a logway to present this craft in a modern setting, without losing its moorings in tradition






             Further Reading and References:-
  • Chandra. S., 2015, Kalamkari, The Art Of Painting With Natural Dyes, The
          Chitrolekha Journal On Art And Design, 2.
  • (https://www.scribd.com/doc/237829316/ Paper-8-indian-Culture-and-Heritage).
  • Kotcherlakota, L. N., 2011, Intellect India, (http://trusciencetrutechnolgy.blogspot.in/
  • Nair, S. & Anand, 2012, ‘Kalamkari Turns Chic, (http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-
  • Tradition and Transition-­‐ A study on Kalamkari of Srikalahasti







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