Kalamkari - The Art of the Hands

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The eastern coast of India has been a prominent region in development of arts through out the history. Unlike the western coast, the eastern coast was relatively safe from invasions, resulting in longer eras of peace and prosperity. The region became cradle to several arts that have survived till date. One among them is the hand-paintings of Kalamkari.

Dating back to 1000 BC and rising to prominence during the days of Mughals around the 16th century, this art involves the use of pen to paint on cotton fabrics. Infact, ‘Kalam’ means pen and ‘kari’ stands for craftsmanship in several native languages. The artists used bamboo or date-palm sticks which was pointed at one end and attached fine hair to this and used it as a brush. Cotton is the most commonly used fabric to paint upon, with silk fabrics gaining popularity lately.

There are three major forms of the art, all scattered along the easrtern side of India. Each has its own unique style

1. Sri Kalahasti Style – Developed around the temple town of Sri Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh of India, these paintings are made using pen. The most commonly depicted pictures are that of the scenes from ancient Hindu epics – Mahabharatha and Ramayana. The temples acted as patrons and allowed the artists to settle near the temple and supplied regular work.

2. Machilipatnam Style – A more modern avatar of the art, this developed around the port town of Machilipatnam (aslo called as Masulipatnam) in Andhra Pradesh. This style uses handblocks in addition to pens. Designs are printed using the blocks while fine details are added using the pen. This art also has high influence from Periain and French styles of paintings, as it was under direct control of both Golconda nawabs and the French colonists for significant time.

3. Karrupur Style – The Marathas who occupied the temple town of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu breifly in the 18th century, introduced the art to region. The art was used as to decorate fabrics which was used as sarees and dhotis by the royal family.  Unfortunately, this art lost its prominence after the fall of the Marathas.

A new style is emerging on the other side of the Indian Coast. Artists in Gujrath, the western-most state of India, are learning the art and giving it a new charm. Mythological figures and historical scenes are depicted.

Kalamkari art was also a major export item during most of its existence. Different patterns were designed to cater the demand of foreign cultures. The Middle-Eastern markets were interested in prayer rugs, canopies and door covers painted with Maharab designs, animal and floral motifs. The Europeans on the other hand loved the tree-of-life bed covers and dress fabrics that resembled crewel work. East Asian countries showed affinity towards materials used to make dresses and jackets, while patterned hip and shoulder wraps and decorative wall hangings were much sought after in South-East Asian countries.

Spice traders from other countries used Kalamkari used Kalamkari paintings as currency too. Traders from South East Asian brought exotic woods, oils and spices and exchanged them for the Kalamkari paintings.


Kalamkari, like most other native painting arts, is highly demanding in terms of resource and time. The process typically involves 22 steps, sometimes reaching 27 steps depending of the fabric. Only natural dyes and fibres are used.

The Kalamkari fabric is bleached, softend and let to dry in the sun. Generally used fabrics is cotton, but silk is used regularly too. The fabric is first treated with cow waste and bleach. This imparts a uniform shade of white to the fabric. It is then dipped in mixtures to avoid the smudging of dyes. The fabric is then repeatedly washed and dried in the scorching heat to dry. The tropical climate of peninsular India makes sure there is ample sunlight for quick drying. Designs are painted first and then are filled with striking colors.

Dyes are blended from jaggery, iron fillings, turmeric, indigo, crushed flowers, seeds and several other sources. For example, mustard or yellow color is obainted by boiling pomogranate peels while red hues are created from barks of madder or algirin. Alum plays a pivotal role as it used both in making the dyes and treating the faric as it ensures stability of colors on the fabric. The fabrics are soaked in a mizture of resin and cowmilk to give it a characteristic shine. After application of every layer of color, it needs to be dried.

As each piece is handcrafted, no two Kalamkari pieces are the same even if crafted by the same artisan depicting the same subject. Perfection is demanded at every single step.

Kalamkari in  the Modern Days

Once considered a prized possession, true Kalamkari fabrics are now on verge of extinction. Andhra Pradesh has the highest concentration of Kalamkari artists with Gujrath joining lately. The designs were replicated very quickly and economically and on a massive scale with the advent of modern technologies.

However, with the increase in income of the Indian population, the original art is slowly regaining its demand. Both the elder and younger generations are showing interest in the handmade fabrics of Kalamkari, which is now used to make sarees and kurtis. The vibrance and naturalness of raw materials is catching the attention of fashion-savvy population. Several fashion strived hard and have succeeded in bring this art back to limelight and give it the attention and love that is deserved.