Photographed in 2013

India has a long history of expertise in textile and fabric dyeing, some of which were found in the Mohenjo Daro and Egyptian tombs. One such art is Kalamkari. The Mughals patronized this craft in the 17th century. It was presented in the recent Lakme Fashion Week. Kalamkari tradition is believed to have started in the 4th century and has continued to be practised mainly in Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti, Andhra Pradesh.

Dr Parul Bhatnagar, assistant professor, Textile Design, Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra, explains that the earliest form of mordant dye on fabrics was found in Mohenjo Daro dating back to 3000 B.C. She continues to explain that during an excavation of Egyptian tombs in Fustat near Cairo, some Madder dyed cloth with traditional Indian motifs were found.

During the Mughal rule in the 17th century, this art flourished to different parts of the world and they named it Qua-lamkars, meaning the artist of Kalamkari. It was widely used in their provinces of Coromandel and Golconda during their rule in India. To cater to the Persian and European markets, where there was a huge demand, the designs/patterns were customised and exported. Kalam means pen and kari, craft. The Kalam is a reed pen made from bamboo. In the picture, a woollen rag is rolled onto the bamboo reed.

Kalamkari was restricted to narrative paintings of Hindu mythology. Epic stories were painted on temple walls dating back to the 4th century. They can still be seen in Srikalahasti temple and Lepakshi temple in Andhra Pradesh, The Mughal rulers made Machilipatnam a hub for Kalamkari. Due to extensive demand, they started block painting as hand painting was time-consuming. Hence, the hand painting method is practised in Srikalahasti.

This art has followed traditional methods of using only natural ingredients, which is followed till date. Pictured clockwise from left, extracts of indigo plant used for the blue colour, myrobalan nut powder used for dyeing of cloth, Madder plant root for obtaining shades of red, Alum (potassium) for red, dry Myrobalan flower for yellow. The traditional colours of Kalamkari are yellow, red, black, green and blue. Variations of these colours are made through a combination of natural ingredients.

From the top: a plain cloth is washed and starch is removed from it. Middle: The same cloth is dyed with myrobalan nut powder and buffaloes milk and dried. The combination of the nut powder and buffalo milk prevents the colours from blotting. Bottom: Designs painted on myrobalan coated cloth.

Jeela Shankaraiah has mastered the art for 48 years in Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh. He and his son Govardhan work for Kalam Creations Artisans Society, a social group exclusively for Kalamkari artists started almost two decades ago by Mamata Reddy. The artists make traditional and modern paintings on fabrics. Five other artists work under Shankaraiah. Here, Shankaraiah paints a scene from Ramayana.

Nagamani, an artist works on a fabric. She has demonstrated the art in various national and international fashion shows.

Pictured to the left, Mamata Reddy reviews fabrics received by artists at Kalam Creations Artisans Society workshop in Tiruchanur, 4 km from Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. There are 45 artists from Srikalahasti working for society. The society sources the materials to designers such as Shashikant Naidu, Gaurang Shah, Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anand Kabra and many such.

Hyderabad-based designer Shashikant Naidu drapes a Kalamkari saree designed by him on a mannequin. For six years, Shashikant’s expertise has been Kalamkari and natural fabrics. He has presented his work on Kalamkari fabrics twice in Lakme Fashion Week.

A model displays a Kalamkari ball gown designed by Gaurang Shah on a charity fashion show in Hyderabad.

Mamatha Reddy’s group has managed to give new life, direction and support to the exquisite temple art form of Kalamkari and its artisans

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