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Kalamkari : Ancient Art of Storytelling

Kalamkari, which means pen(kalam) and craftsmanship(kari) is a type of hand printed or hand block printed cotton textile produced in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Kalamkari is used to depict stories and scenes from ancient Indian epics. Motifs drawn in the ancient art of Kalamkari include floral motifs, animal forms and also divine characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The art found its inception when musicians and painters known as the “chitrakaras” moved from village to village for telling the stories of Hindu epics. They illustrated their epics using large bolts of canvas painted on the spot with simple means and dyes extracted from plants.

Historically, Kalamkaris used to be known as Pattachitras, an art form still found in neighboring Odisha and other parts of India and Nepal. The term "Pattachitra" (Sanskrit : पट्टचित्र) translates to "patta", meaning "cloth", with "chitra" meaning "picture". Paintings made on fabric and fabric scrolls are mentioned in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature.

There are two unique styles of kalamkari art, namely, Srikalahasti and the Machilipatnam style. The Srikalahasti style of Kalamkari, in which the pen or the “kalam” is used for freehand drawing and filling in the colors, is a complete handwork art.

The Srikalahasti style is used mostly to narrate the religious myths and epics stories on the fabric and also the saris of this style are most notable for its borders and pallu. Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari craft involves vegetable-dyed block-painting of a fabric. The narrative panels are created using hand or block printing.

 The art involves large number of steps right from steeping the fabric in buffalo milk to sun drying it for 3 days. As much as 23 detailed steps are required in creating the art.

Each step serves as a prerequisite to highlight the delicate pattern and intricate details of the art. (E.g. – Fabric is first steeped in buffalo milk because buffalo milk has more buttery content. This content when soaked by the fabric makes it easier to sketch.

For sketching, charcoal pencil is used. Twigs from nearby tamarind trees are collected and burnt. The twigs are evenly half-burnt. These twigs form the charcoal pencil after cooling them with sand. The charcoal drawing provides the basic layout in the Kalamkari painting.

To create design contours, two types of bamboo sticks are used.  One has a sharp tip for outline drawing while other has a blunt, round tip for filling of mordant. Bamboo sticks are soaked in Kasimi, a black liquid prepared from water, jaggery and iron waste.

Dyes for the cloth are obtained by extracting colors from various roots, leaves, and mineral salts of iron, tin, copper, and alum. Various effects are obtained by using cow dung, seeds, plants and crushed flowers to obtain natural dye. Alum ensures the stability of the color in Kalamkari fabric.

As the colors used are all derived from natural sources they are subtle. Colors are applied to the character depending on the mood, context of the scene rather than the identity of the character i.e. colors too comprehend the story in addition with the character.

Today, Kalamkari is not only limited to sarees but its influence can also be seen widely in readymades, bedsheets, curtains, bags, home décor, accessories.

You can view our kalamkari shirts here.

Efforts are being made to revive the Kalamkari art as more and more people are now opting for wearing natural fibers.

We at MyMahak, salute the craftsmen who have kept this art form alive since centuries and who have been the ambassadors of this art which is an ancient visual ode to storytelling.

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