Clothed in History

Kalamkari embraces the world of gods and was once used to decorate temples and chariots. Today, in India, it is the face of a dying craft of printing by hand. PHOTO: J Niranjan

If you happen to be around the Metropolitan Museum of Art (gallery 199 in specific) or have Internet hours in hand, the ongoing exhibition titled Sultans of Deccan India (1500-1700) is worth a dekko. A show of opulence enjoyed by kings of the Deccan region in India, the exhibition features 200 artifacts that explore poetic lyricism in paintings, exquisite metalwork, and a distinguished form of fabric production. Known as kalamkari, this cotton fabric is painstakingly dyed using natural vegetable colors and decorated with intricate and detailed paintings by hand. Practised and protected by a small community in the state of Andhra Pradesh today, the family craft faces the Herculean task of survival in the face of plagiarism, lack of government support, and the decreasing number of artisans.

Said to be a 3,000 year-old craft and patronised by the Mughal emperors, the art form is concentrated in two small villages of Andhra Pradesh – Srikalahasti and Machalipatnam. Machalipatnam was influenced by the Muslim trade ties across Asia and hence, kalamkari here catered more to Islamic aesthetics. The Srikalahasti style flourished under the patronage of the Srikalahasti temple – one of the five pancha bhuta temples. Thus, the art form here drew its inspiration exclusively from Hindu mythology.

Artwork by Gurappa Chetty, who has been awarded by the Indian government for his contribution to kalamkari

Artwork by Gurappa Chetty, who has been awarded by the Indian government for his contribution to kalamkari

According to master practitioner Gurappa Chetty, kalamkari is a laborious process of resist-dyeing and hand printing. First, the cloth is whitened in a solution of cow or goat dung and dried in the sun for a couple of days. Contours are then drawn with bamboo slivers soaked in a mixture of fermented jaggery and water. The shapes are outlined with black dye, usually made from iron filings. Another flat-tipped brush is covered with a piece of an old woolen blanket to fill in the vegetable colors.

The dyes are obtained from parts of fruits, vegetables, crushed flowers, cow dung, seeds, roots and leaves, with mineral salts of iron, tin, copper and other metals serving as mordants (which helps bind the color to the fabric). Certain colors require the application of alum and wax as well. After applying each color, the fabric is washed. Fabrics may be washed up to 20 times before completion.

With time and manual skills being the mainstay of this craft, families who took up kalamkari as a vocation are increasingly seeing their younger generations turning to lesser-demanding jobs. Come summer and there is a dearth of water resources for the fabric to be washed many a time. Further, industrial duplication has been rearing its ugly head. No wonder then that people like Anuradha Pati are wondering if it’s time to pen an elegy for this handcrafted tradition.

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