Kalamkari is an ancient Indian art that originated about 3000 years ago. It derives its name from Kalam meaning Pen, and Kari meaning work, literally Pen-work. The Kalamkari artist uses a bamboo or date palm stick pointed at one end with a bundle of fine hair attached to this pointed end to serve as the brush or pen. These paintings were earlier drawn on cotton fabric only, but now we can see these paintings on silk and other materials as well. The Kalamkari art includes both, printing and painting. The colors used in making these paintings are organic. Most of the colors are prepared using parts of plants – roots, leaves along with mineral salts of iron, tin, copper, alum, etc., which are used as mordants. There are numerous forms and styles of this type of painting throughout the Indian subcontinent.
In ancient India, the art of painting using organic colors and dyes was very popular, but this style of painting originated at Kalahasti (80 miles north of Chennai) and at Masulipatnam (200 miles east of Hyderabad). The paintings then used to depict Hindu Deities and the scenes from Hindu mythology. Masulipatnam being a muslim region, the weavers were involved in the block printing art whereas the artists from Kalahasti practiced painting Hindu mythological scenes.
Owing to Muslim rule in Golconda, the Masulipatnam Kalamkari was influenced by Persian motifs & designs, widely adapted to suit their taste. The outlines and main features are done using hand carved blocks. The finer details are later done using the pen.
The Kalahasti tradition which developed in the temple region mostly concentrated on themes form Hindu mythology, epics (Ramayana, Mahabharatha), images of Gods and heroes.
Karrupur is a style of Kalamkari that developed in the Thanjavur region during the Maratha rule. The Kalamkari work was a further embellishment to the gold brocade work in the woven fabric, which was used as sarees & dhotis by the royal family during the period of Raja Sarfoji and later Raja Shivaji.
The traders and merchants across the world used Kalamkari paintings as currency in the spice trade. There was a very high demand of spices like nutmeg, clove, and pepper as well as aromatic woods and oils, which were available almost exclusively in parts of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. The Southeast Asian and Indonesian traders demanded Indian textile in form of Kalamkari Paintings for ritual and ceremonial use.
Kalamkari textiles took many forms depending on their intended market. Prayer rugs, canopies and door covers painted with meharab designs, animal forms and floral motifs were made for the Middle-Eastern market, while tree-of-life bed-covers and dress material that resembled crewel work was painted for the European market. On the other hand, patterned hip and shoulder wrappers and narrative wall hangings were traded to the Southeast Asian market and material for robes and jackets were sent to East Asia.
The artists who worked on the Kalamkari painting scrolls were known as Jadupatuas or Duari Patuas. This can be translated to ‘magical painters’. European trading merchants however gave the process their own names which included the more familiar ‘chintz’ which came from the British. The Dutch called it ’sitz’ whilst the Portuguese referred to it as ‘pintado’.
The process is very slow and vigorous. The kalamkari goes through a process of resist – dyeing and hand printing. There are lots and lots of treatments involved before and after the painting are done. The colors change depending on the treatment of cloth and quality of the mordant. Every step in the process is painstakingly done and with perfection. Kalamkari paintings have a flourishing market in and outside of India. The kalamkari art for sale is available in leading exhibitions that showcase and promote Indian handicrafts.