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Contributor:  R L Shep

Robb Shep

Kalamkari is a word that runs through the history of Indian Textiles from the beginnings as a simple folkcraft through both great and bad times down to its revival today. Kalam comes from the Persian  language and means `pen' and Kari means `work'. Actually the name came into being with the Muslim influences coming into India, although the technique and practice is far older than that.

The beginnings of Kalamkari probably rest in South India and grew out of the need to illustrate some of the temple rituals. The temples commissioned large religious themed cloths. It is also true that with the advent of carbon dating, we are continually finding evidence of very old Indian textiles excavated in places like Fostat in Egypt, and Mohenjodaro and Harappa now in Pakistan. A number of heirloom cloths, which are quite old, have been discovered in Indonesia. A good number of these cloths came from the west of India, from Gujarat and Surat. Many of the cloths were block printed, some were painted cloths and there is also some evidence of Kalamkari as we know it.

There are a number of scholars who are continually expanding our knowledge on this subject and this brings more light on the subject each year. Many of them are represented in the bibliography.

Some of the Pichhwais (Cloth back Drops of Shrines) of Rajasthan and Gujarat are Kalamkari. Basically these are painted cloths used as decorations for the shrines of Krishna in his appearance as Srinathji in Rajasthan. They are of a wide range of techniques depending upon where they are made.

There was another variation worth noting in the region of Thanjavur where the family of the ruler or Raja wore Kalamkari that was executed on cloth having a woven golden brocade motif. This type is known as `Karrupur' but has since disappeared.

Basically Kalamkari is a product of the southeast coast, which the Europeans call the Coromandel Coast; ultimately centered in Sri Kalahasti and Masulipatnam and each place producing quite different results. Most of our knowledge of Kalamkari really dates from 16th and 17th century, although a few examples that predate this have been found. A good deal of this has to do with historical events in India. The temples were no longer commissioning temple cloths and Kalamkari came to the notice of the Portugese who called it `Pintado', the Dutch called it `sitz' and the English called it `Chintz'. Ultimately `Chintz' won out as a term.

Then large quantities of these cloths were produced and traded to Europe. At the same time these were  also taken to Indonesia, Thailand and Japan often with particular motifs to suit the demands of these areas. One of the better known motifs is the Tree of Life found in many ‘Palampore’ (bedcover) that were sent both to Europe and Indonesia. And there was a constant trade with Persia for cloth that showed a marked Muslim influence. These later cloth came from Masulipatnam which was under the rulers of Golconda, a Muslim kingdom. Persian craftsmen worked there to oversee their production.

With Independence came a new interest in the traditional crafts of India. The All India Handicrafts Board set out to revive many of these crafts. There were only one or two families at Sri Kalahasti who were producing Kalamkari and at Masulipatnam the printing blocks lay hidden away unused. Slowly there was a steady effort to bring this craft back to both places by setting up training centers and creating new markets. The actual Kalamkari technique is very complicated and time consuming. In some cases it takes several days to produce a cloth and in others several weeks. And the quality of the pieces depends upon many factors, not the least of which is the quality of the water used and the availability of local minerals to be used as mordants. This has a lot to do with why Kalamkari was centered in these two locations.

Sethna, a Kalamkari expert, gives a detailed explanation of the process showing that there were 12 steps employed at Masulipatnam (this after the cloth has been woven) and 17 steps at Sri Kalahasti. These steps involve many washings, the use of mordants, wax, milk, dyes, bleaching with goat or buffalo dung, etc. Gillow also writes about the basic techniques used in these areas. Kalamkari were known for their richness of color and the use of natural dyes. But as time went on some of the natural dyes were replaced by chemical ones. This is especially true in the case of indigo, which has largely been abandoned and the chemical used produces a much lighter color. From all accounts a few craftsmen are still using indigo.

Looking at the two illustrations you can easily see the difference in the cloths produced in each area. Frankly I find both of them to be very beautiful but entirely different in almost every way.

Sri Kalahasti is near the temple town of Tirupathi. It is some 80 miles north of Chennai (Madras). I bought this cloth there when I visited the home of the artist Sri Gurrappa Chetty in 1994. He is the father of another well known Kalamkari artist Sri Niranjan and the entire family is engaged one way or another in this work. I remember being interested in the fact that their working conditions were quite simple but suited their needs. And in fact a lot of it is done on the floor. In terms of this piece I was particularly drawn to was because of the colors and the wonderful depictions of elephants. In the Sri Kalahasti style of Kalamkari they use 2 different Kalams(Pens). One has a pointed sharp tip and is used for the outlines and the other is round and flat and is used for filling in the colors. Halfway up the kalam there is a dye reservoir made of hair or sometimes felt that holds the dye materials. Some of the other pieces he had for sale at that time were those showing scenes from the life of Christ and others from the life of Buddha. All of his pieces were done freehand in a very pleasing and flowing style. Many of the writers on this subject feel that this is the true form of Kalamkari. But, as with many other textile questions, others disagree.

Masulipatnam is a bit farther up the coast, about 200 miles east of Hyderabad. It was once a part of the Muslim kingdom of Golconda. I bought this piece at the Tribal & Textile Arts show in San Francisco in February of 2007. The dealer had this and a few others that she got from an Iranian. I had many dealers that I knew look at it and they felt that it was early 20th century. What that means is that it could have been made in Masulipatnam and exported to Persia because they were doing that actively until 1924. It also means that it could have been produced in Persia. There is no real way to tell. Nonetheless it is a very good example of a textile of this type. They are produced using a series of blocks rather than with a kalam. After the many steps it takes to produce the work, a kalam is used to paint on the yellows which produce both yellow and green (when painted over blue). The fineness of the textile is often judged by the amount of yellow on it. Unfortunately it is hard to see the yellows on the example shown here. This textile could have been used as a wall hanging or a doorway decoration. Many old blocks have been found and there are textiles being produced at Masulipatnam again.

So what it comes down to at this point for many people is what is available now, and what is being produced . One of the best sources for this information is Handcrafted Indian Textiles edited by Martand Singh, published in 2000, which is still available. Under the heading of “dye painted textiles” it shows textiles from Sri Kalahasti and then shows a number of very interesting textiles produced at the Weavers Service Centre, Hyderabad. They also show textiles produced at Masulipatnam but under the heading of “printed textiles”. Looking further into this, it is possible to ‘google’ Kalamkari and we find a website for Sri Kalahasti which gives a lot of basic information, a gallery of textiles and a list of artists and how to contact them. They do not sell items through the website. But certainly these artists would be reliable to buy from.

Also on Google  is a Wikipedia article on Kalamkari, a couple of videos, and a number of shopping sites. The Amazon site does not seem to be very satisfying. There are a number of textiles offered but most of them are “Kalamkari block print” or “hand printed Kalamkari”. Other sites offer “Kalamkari paintings” which are of Indian religious themes in nature and said to be “painted and printed Kalamkari fabrics”. There are also offerings on Ebay. All of these sites are interesting to look at and there is a lot of information to be gained. It seems to me to be very problematical as to exactly what they are offering and what guarantees one would have by buying without actually seeing the textiles.

In any case it is good to see that the craft has been revived and information is available and that some interesting work continues to be produced.


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Hacker, Katherine F. & Krista Jensen Turnbull. COURTYARD, BAZAAR, TEMPLE: Traditions of Textile Expression in India. Seattle. U. Washington. 1982
Gillow, John & Nicholas Barnard. TRADITIONAL INDIAN TEXTILES. London. Thames & Hudson. 1991
… & Bryan Sentace. WORLD TEXTILES: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques. Boston. Bulfinch. 1999
Gittinger, Mattiebele. MASTER DYERS TO THE WORLD: Technique & Trade in Early Indian Dyes Cotton Textiles. Washington, D.C. Textile Museum. 1982
Guy, John. WOVEN CARGOES: Indian Textiles in the East. New York. Thames & Hudson. 1998
Hatanaka, Kokyo. TEXTILES ARTS OF INDIA. Kyoto. Kyoto Shoin. 1993
Irwin, John & Katharine B. Brett. ORIGINS OF CHINTZ. London. H.M. Stationery Office. 1970
& Margaret Hall. INDIAN PAINTED & PRINTED FABRICS. Ahmedabad. Calico. 1971
Jain, Jyotindra & Aarti Aggarwala. NATIONAL HANDICRAFTS & HANDLOOMS MUSEUM New Delhi. Middletown. Grantha 1989
Krisha, Nanditha. ARTS & CRAFTS OF TAMILNADU. Middltown. Grantha. 1992
Maxwell, Robyn. SARI TO SARONG: 500 years of Indian & Indonesian textile Exchange. np National Gallery of Australia. 2003
Sethna, Nelly H. KALAMKARI; Painted & Printed Fabrics from Andhra Pradesh. New York. Mapin International. 1985
Singh, Martand, ed. HANDCRAFTED INDIAN TEXTILES. New Delhi. Lustre Pr. 2000
TWO FACES OF SOUTH ASIAN ART: Textiles & Painting. Madison. U. Wisconsin. 1984


Andhra Pradesh

Places visited in Andhra Pradesh : Srikalahasthi & Masulipatnam

Small places cannot be correctly located in these maps. May we request/suggest that you look into Google Maps for the location of these places in the particular States of India. Thank you for your understanding.