The Coromandel Coast of India was historically the source of some of the most beautifully coloured and delicately worked cotton fabrics. Here mordants, resists and brushes or pens were traditionally applied and used to produce figurative and floral designs of great fineness. Kalam is a Persian word meaning pen and kari means work. This kalam or pen is a stick of bamboo or date palm, which has a tapered point. This point is slit to about l”, above which there is a round ball of wool that serves as a reservoir for ink. The kalam is dipped in the ink and the wool fabric is pressed while applying the paint on the fabric.
This painted cloth of South-East India had been known as Pintado by the Portuguese and Chintz by the English. Musulipatnam and Srikalahasti are the two most well known centres of these kalamkaris. Around mid nineteenth century printing blocks were introduced and from then on very little freehand kalam drawing was done. These kalamkari paintings were worked out under the patronage of local temples.
There is a religious colour code for the decoration of Kalamkari cloths – all Gods are painted blue, female characters golden yellow and all demons and bad characters are red. The Srikalahasti designs show Hindu influence whereas Masulipatanam with its historic Persian links shows Muslim influence.
Originally, only vegetable dyes were used for colouring the fabric. The procedure involves the use of kalams or blocks for application of the wax resists on the fabric which would be later dyed blue, red, green, yellow and black. The fabric used for manufacture of these kalamkaris is the unbleached plain weave cotton fabric for the mordanting process. To produce black colour iron mordant called Kasam is used, whereas for red Alam crystals as mordant is painted on the cloth followed by washing for removal of excess mordant and then finally dyeing of the fabric in different colours by subsequent removal of wax is carried out. Starching is also done where rice starch and buffalo milk are applied on the fabric. The wax used is generally the beeswax.
Fabric commonly demanded include products like upholstery material – curtains, sofa covers, bed covers, cushion covers etc. Dress materials like women’s petticoats, children garments, caps are popular choices. Wall hangings, prayer mats, waist bands, jamas have also been made. The popular motifs included the Tree of Life, Cyprus cone, verses from Koran, Mihrab or the arch which were seen amidst a number of floral scrawls and creepers. In the figurative designs the human faces were given a lot of attention the eyes were made bold and expressive. Female jewellery was made very elaborate and intricate details were given to costumes. The figures with rounded shapes and border designs are typical of kalamkaris. The motifs are a blend of both geometric and naturalistic depictions.
However the production of these beautiful kalamkaris fell into steep decline at the beginning of 20th century. Today the All India handicrafts board has set-up a training course and school for kalamkari workers, drawing on the skills and creative urges of the few remaining workers.
India is rich in art and craft and Kalamkari that is painted on cloth is done in several parts of India and Iran. In Andhra Pradesh, both the Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti villages are recognized as major centers for Kalamkari painting. Masulipatnam, located in the southeast coast of India, 200 miles east of Hyderabad, and Srikalahasti 80 miles north of Chennai near Tirupati, are the leaders in producing Kalamkari paintings. Kalamkari as practiced in Masulipatnam is different from the Kalamkari practiced in Srikalahasti.
Masulipatnam style of painting
Masulipatnam designs are Iranian in character 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 its peak and even today it is largely produced for Indians and foreigners.
Srikalahasti style of painting
Coming to Srikalahasti, 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.
Techniques of Kalamkari Art
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 quality of the mordant, the colours change accordingly. Every step from soaking of the cloth, to sketching the outlines to washing and drying the cloth, is done carefully and correctly.
The world over, people are turning away from dangerous chemical dyes. The harmless, naturally dyed fabrics is used for Kalamkari paintings. The artists believe in using natural dyes, extracted from bark, flower and root. One would be stunned to know that the colour red is obtained by using the Indian madder root, yellow from the pomegranate seed or even mango bark, and black from myrobalam fruit. No chemical dyes are used is producing kalamkari colours!
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.
- The cloth is first whitened by immersing in a solution of goat or cow dung and letting it dry in the Sun for a few days.
- The 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 colour from spreading in the next step.
- Then iron acetate solution is filled in, either for solid spaces or as outlines, with a brush-pen in Srikalahasti, and wooden blocks in Masulipatnam.
- 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.
- After applying alum, the cloth is kept for at least 24 hours. Then the excess mordant is removed by washing the cloth under flowing water.
- The dyeing is done for the red colour by boiling with the red colouring materials.
- All the portions that are not to be blue are covered with wax.
- The waxed cloth is immersed in indigo solution. In Srikalahasti, the blue is painted with the kalam. Then the wax is removed by boiling the cloth in water.
- The yellow is painted on to produce yellow and green.
- The cloth is finally washed again and dried before the final colours emerge.