The Process of Kalamkari Explained

Throughout history, India's southeast coast, popularly anglicized by the Europeans as the Coromandel Coast, was a mecca for the Kalamkari designs and textiles, contributing to the flourishing maritime trade in the medieval Indian subcontinent. Historically, the towns of Srikalahasti and Machilipatnam are the major production centres of Kalamkari (kalam-pen, kari-craft), in which cotton textiles are traditionally hand-painted with pictorial narratives through a bamboo pen, date palm or a tamarind stick.


This handicraft uses no chemicals or machines; therefore, natural dyes and metallic salts called mordants used to fix the dye into the cotton fibres are essential for this craft. An exact resist process, a complex procedure of 23 steps like, cloth treating, sketching, dyeing, printing, multiple washing steps, and even the gold or silver brocade work are integral components of this art. In Srikalahasti, Machilipatnam and other interior regions of Andhra Pradesh, this handicraft is a generational household occupation passed from fathers to their sons. 


The Srikalahasti style involves using the pen for outlining and filling the natural dyes in intricate designs of religious myths and epic stories. This style is notable for its borders and pallus on sarees. The Machilipatnam work, in technical terms, is not absolute penwork. These artists print outlines and leading features of the designs with reusable hand-carved blocks. The motifs are more Persian due to the patronage and proximity to the Mughals and Golconda Sultanate. This style involves interlacing floral patterns, Tree of Life (perhaps reminiscent of the various tribal art forms in Deccan), and fauna like parrots and peacocks. They also include daily life scenes of the kingdom. Trying to meet the rising Iranian demand for this textile and, consequently, the European markets, the cultural exchange influenced Kalamkari. The handicraft adapted many patterns, extending its application from temple and courtly hangings to daily use textiles like home furnishings and garments.


Here's a detailed guide to the process of Kalamkari both in Srikalahasti and Machilipatnam styles.



  • Kalam - a pen made of bamboo reed, a cotton cloth rolled over the reed and tangled by the cotton thread. Two different kalams are required, one for outlining and one for colour filling.
  • Cotton cloth for fabric printing, traditionally called gaada
  • Buffalo milk to treat the cloth and avoid colour spreading
  • Alum is the mordant (dye fixative) used in the dying process to ensure the stability of colours.
  • Various handmade dyes
  • Myrobalan flower (Karakapuvvu locally) and Myrobalan bud (Karakapinde locally) for enhancing the dyes and making them permanent 
  • Tamarind stems are burnt into charcoal as pencils for initial sketching.
  • Jaggery
  • Water



  • Low wooden table padded with gunny
  • Wooden trays for the paste
  • Mud pots for the black dye
  • Granite grinding stone, wooden mortar and pestle, and simple earthen pots to use as containers are mainly used. 


Srikalahasti Style

1. Preparation of Cloth: A cotton cloth is steeped in water overnight to remove impurities and then dried under the sun. After this, the cloth is treated in the solution, grinded with Myrobalan bud, flower paste, and buffalo milk. For 10 meters of cloth, 4 litres of buffalo milk is used. After immersing in milk solution for 5 to 10 minutes, the cloth is taken out and squeezed to remove the excess solution, and it is allowed to dry under the sun for 2 hours. The cloth is washed in running water three times and dried under the sun to get a uniform off-white colour and smooth texture.


2. Outlining and Sketching: The initial sketching on the processed cloth uses charcoal pencils made using burnt tamarind branches. The detailing uses a pencil, and the kalam is dipped in Kasim Kaaram to trace the design. Kasim Kaaram is an iron black colour solution prepared using rusted iron filings, cane jaggery and palm jaggery. These materials are dissolved in water in a closed earthen pot for fermentation. After 21 days, the solution is filtered, and the iron filings are removed. The dye colour contacts the cloth when the artisan squeezes the cotton ball of kalam slightly. This black colour turns darker when it reacts with Myrobalan-treated cloth. The excess outline colour is removed using a soft cloth by pressing it gently on the design. The cloth is washed again.


3. Red Color Development: The red colour is obtained by mordanting the cloth with alum. While painting, the Kasim Kaaram is required to obtain the darker red shades. And for lighter red shades, alum is applied once. The painted alum cloth is allowed to dry for 2 days and then washed under running water. The boiling process uses natural dyestuffs, i.e., Suruduchakka (300 gm.), chavalakodi tree root powders (1 Kg.), and ½ Kg of alum added in boiling water. The painted cloth is immersed in the solution and boiled for 30 minutes at a high temperature. These tree roots lend red colours. Once the red colour appears, the cloth is removed from the boiling solution. The fabric is now taken to the river water and is washed repeatedly for 3 days near the bank of the river until the cloth is completely bleached. During this process, the coloured areas remain the same, and the rest of the fabric is whitened. Earlier, the coloured cloth was again treated with buffalo milk for 10 minutes to avoid the colour spreading. In modern times, the second treatment of buffalo milk is not practised anymore. 


4. Filling Colors: Red-coloured cloth is now taken to the colour-filling process. The yellow colour obtained using pomegranate skin is initially filled in the required portions. Then it is followed by green (obtained by mixing myrobalan flower, Kasim karma and alum mixed with water). Finally, the blue colour made with indigo leaves is filled. The colour filling is done using tapered-edged kalam. Tapering is done by chisel.


Machilipatnam Style


In the Machilipatnam style, the initial procedure of washing the fabric and sun drying is the same as in the Srikalahasti style. But since this style uses the block printing method, it does not require linework; instead, separate blocks are used for each colour.


1. Printing of Mordants: In the first sub-unit, small blocks made from teakwood by artisans from the carpenter's community give design patterns. The fabric to be printed is stretched out on the table. The damp undersurface prevents the cloth from slipping during printing. Then, the mordant is placed on a printing pad. The bamboo separators act as the base over which a sponge layer is put, which is further covered with a gunny cloth. The sponge layer absorbs the mordant in a limited quantity, and the gunny cloth acts as a blotter allowing only the surface residue to come in contact with the block. First, the background of the designs is printed, and then the outline of the designs is printed on the myrobalan-dipped cloth for filling black and red colours. Then it is rewashed. Finally, other colours are added.


2. Degumming and Washing: After block printing, the cloth is kept for two to three days until dried. It is washed in flowing water to remove the gum and any unwanted mordant to avoid the development of colour in any unwanted area due to the spreading of the mordant. After washing for one hour, it is dried in the sun.


In conclusion, the intricate and time-consuming process of Kalamkari, coupled with the use of natural dyes and indigenous tools, not only distinguishes this craft as unique but also ensures its sustainability. Recently, the art of Kalamkari has been experiencing a surge in popularity due to its chemical-free approach to creating printed textiles. As more and more individuals worldwide advocate against the use of harmful chemicals in production and manufacturing, Kalamkari emerges as an ideal craft, offering exquisitely colored fabrics while maintaining its commitment to avoiding artificial substances. The growing appreciation for Kalamkari reflects a global shift towards embracing sustainable practices in the realm of artistic expression and textile industry.


1 comment

  • Lalitha rajan: September 14, 2023
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    I am a natural dye block printing enthusiast..i have tried block printing before the whole fabric is dyed ..but in machlipatnam style ..printing with natiral dye like madder n moduga flowers for light green is done ..can you please share the recipe for making madder dye paste for printing

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