Kalamkari: Fabrics Dipped in Mythological Tales

The ancient art of meticulously crafting the mythological characters and tales on cotton or silk fabric, Kalamkari literally translates to ‘kalam’ for pen and ‘kari’ for craftsmanship.    

Let’s watch a short documentary on ‘Kalamkari’ before we proceed:

Courtesy: Live History India

The origin

This ancient elegant art form is said to originate nearly 3000 years ago through Chithrakathis – a caste of storytelling singers, painters and musicians from Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka who traveled from village to village narrating tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Eventually making cloth as canvas, these stories were portrayed as drawings using vegetable and plant dyes. These paintings were often used as decorative backdrops in temples, depicting the stories of deities. The Chithrakathis are said to have then settled in Srikalahasti – a temple town in Andhra Pradesh – serving the temple.

Such was the popularity that it was exported to European countries in the 13 century and was cherished until the 18th century. But after the industrial revolution in London in the 18th century, the exports stopped.

Its two forms

It was under the Islamic rule that it got the name Kalamkari (Qualamkari). And later became popular under the patronage of the Golconda sultanate, from where the art flourished at Machilipatnam in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Later was promoted by the British people in India during the 18th century as a decorative design on clothing. Hence, forming two styles of Kalamkari – Srikalahasti and the Machilipatnam – both widely practiced in Andhra Pradesh.

(i) Machilipatnam style

Here the motifs are printed with hand-carved traditional blocks with intricate detailing that are filled by hands. It is registered as one of the geographical indications under the handicraft goods by Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999.

(ii) Srikalahasti style

Due to its origin in the temples, it draws inspiration from the Hindu mythology portraying scenes from sacred texts such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Bhagavatam. Right from designs to filling colours the process is entirely hand done.

The Process

The process of making a Kalamkari textile is a tedious job, involving 23 steps. Right from naturally bleaching the fabric in cow dung and soaking in it for uniform off white colour, to immersing the fabric in a mixture of buffalo milk and Myrobalans to get rid of the smell, followed by softening and sun drying the cloth.

Once the cloth is dry, the sketching of central figures is done using a tamarind pen and meticulously outlined with a finely pointed pen dipped in the kasimi liquid. Even today colours are naturally extracted from roots and leaves giving a beautiful interplay of blue and red. The symbolic Tree of Life is a popular Kalamkari motif.

At the moment

Till a few years back kalamkari was carried out by just four families, but thanks to our Indian designers, it came back to the limelight. Not only do these designers give a traditional touch to the contemporary designs but in a way they are keeping alive an ancient art while also generating employment for the artisans. However, there are some companies that have found out their way to screen print the Kalamkari designs but that’s not authentic Kalamkari which is either hand-painted or block-printed. That way they are able to offer flawless designs at cheaper prices but the connoisseurs of the textile art know that there is a unique appeal in the hand-crafted creations.

Where To Buy Kalamkari Fabrics and Apparel?


Matkatus – www.matkatus.com
Sanskruti – www.sanskrutistore.com
Fabriclore – fabriclore.com
The Chalk Boutique- www.thechalkboutique.com

Kalamkari Apparel For Women:

Maiwa – www.maiwa.com
Malkha – www.malkha.in
The Secret Label- www.thesecretlabel.com
The Svaya- thesvaya.com
Fab India – www.fabindia.com

Kalamkari Apparel For Men:

Vinegr- www.vinegr.in
Malkha – www.thestiffcollar.com
Fab India- www.fabindia.com

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