The Kalamkari Dupatta which you drape across your shoulders or the Kalamkari Saree which you elegantly drape, pairing it with oxidised jewelleries to stand out in a crowd involves twenty-three steps of cleaning, drying, bleaching, starching, handwriting, hand painting, hand colouring and more. Stunned? From the natural processes of bleaching the fabric, softening it, sun drying, preparing natural dyes, hand painting, to the processes of air drying and washing, the entire procedure is ponderous and wearisome. Our adept artists are pouring their blood and sweat to keep our culture breathing through their polished works, which on a global scale have been representing our nation and its cultural beauty.
Fabric is first soaked in hot water overnight; the fabric gets a uniform off-white colour. The artisans immerse the fabric in a mixture of buffalo milk and myrobalan. This process is carried out to avoid the smudging of dyes in the fabric when painted with natural dyes. Later, the fabric is washed under running water to get rid of the pungent odour of buffalo milk. The fabric, likewise, is washed multiple times and dried under the sun. Once the fabric is ready for painting, artisans sketch motifs and detailed designs on the fabric. Post this, the Kalamkari artists prepare dyes using natural sources to fill colours within the handmade drawings and designs. Did you know that the burnt bark of the tamarind tree is used for sketching freehand designs on the yellow base cloth? Yes, it's true.
Bamboo sticks are sharpened with a knife and a cloth is tied around the stem in a certain pattern to make a traditional pen called ‘Kalam.’ A thin pen is used for outlining and a thick one is used for filling the homemade natural colours. This part of the process requires rigorous practice and artistic skills. Kalamkari art primarily uses earthy colours like indigo, mustard, rust, grey, black, orange, and green. Jaggery and bits of rusted iron are mixed in water and stored in mud pots for 15 days to get Kasim Karam (black ink). Alum generates the kalamkari red, dried pomegranate peel gives yellow, katha is used for brown, indigo comes from indigo cakes and pink is generated by boiling Chawal Kodi (vine of a tree from Assam) with alum and water. All other colours like orange and green are derived by mixing the base colours.
Artists gently press the cotton bundle and draw beautiful and intricate designs on the cloth. Fabric colouring starts with red colour and red-painted fabric needs a special treatment. Red colour fabric is soaked in water for an hour and then placed in a water container on fire for 10-15 minutes, while the saree is stirred continuously. It is then taken out and dried, which helps in bringing out a lovely shade of red. Other colours are applied accordingly. Saree is left untouched for drying for a day by the artisans.
Then the saree is washed in the ‘Swarnamukhi’ river and dried before it goes for pressing. Swarnamukhi originates from the Chandragiri hills of the Agasthya mountain ranges. When the fabric is washed in Swarnamukhi, it attains a unique red colour, and surprisingly, no other river water can give that unique red hue, while washing.
In India, the Kalamkari art has two distinctive and remarkable styles- the Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style. The Srikalahasti style was brought into the limelight by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Originally, Kalamkari was known as Pattachitra, a traditional, cloth-based scroll painting, which is still found in neighbouring states of Odisha and West Bengal. ‘Patta’ means cloth and ‘Chitra’ means picture. So, Pattachitra refers to a painting that is done on fabric and fabric scrolls with mythological tales engraved on them. Under medieval Islamic rule, the term ‘Kalamkari’ was obtained from a Persian word. ‘Kalam’ means pen and ‘Kari’ means craftsmanship. The aesthetically pleasing art gained popularity under the Golconda sultanate.
Initially, Kalamkari only focused on Mahabharat and Ramayan and portrayed tales, narratives from the Indian epics. Mostly divine characters from epics were drawn on fabrics but in recent times, motifs drawn on Kalamkari also include Buddhist art forms and other artistic and sensuous figures like musical instruments, small animals, peacocks, paisleys, flowers and few Hindu symbols, like ‘Swastika.’
Woefully, in the dawn of the 21st century, digital techniques are taking over traditional ones and the digital files of Kalamkari are being introduced to the world. Since printing through digital techniques is effortless and undemanding, unlike traditional techniques, in India, silk, mulmul cotton and synthetic sarees are also marketed with Kalamkari print. Over 90% of the Kalamkari marketed in India are an imitation of the original Kalamkari and are not hand-drawn. It's screen printed Kalamkari made with chemical colours. Over time, people started looking for loopholes and also looked for ways to cut costs. Consequently, they started eliminating the long process of making natural colours and started using chemical colours. They also started doing screen printing and sold them in the markets as original Kalamkari. Chemicals are used in screen printing Kalamkari and the colours of the final product are much brighter and the designs are much bolder in comparison to the original Kalamkari.
The originality of Kalamkari can be tested from its odour. The pungent and unpleasant smell of milk and alum that the fabric emits tell us that it is the authentic Kalamkari. Moreover, the natural colours used in original Kalamkari wearables are also not glittery.