THE RICH HISTORY OF FABRIC PAINTING IN SOUTH INDIA
Painting on fabric is 3,000 years old in India. Ajrakh has been found at the site of Mohenjo-dara. From the times of the Indus Valley Civilization, Kalamkari fabric painting grew as a unique art form, which is today to be found in Andhra Pradesh. The ancient temple town of Kalahasti is home to some of the most vibrant and creative Kalamkari painting to be found anywhere. The word, ‘Kalamkari’ is derived from the Persian words “kalam” meaning “pen,” and “kari” meaning “craftsmanship.” A is pen fashioned out of bamboo and horse-hair is attached to one the end to serve as a brush to paint with.
Sihasn’s rocking chairs are upholstered with vibrant Kalamkari cotton fabrics from Sri Sai Kalamkari Silks and women-centric artisan network, Dwarka PlusUnder the Mughal rulers of Golconda, Kalamkari flourished as an art form well into the 18th century. The Golconda sultanate was famous for its patronage of several varieties of art including Golconda-style miniature painting. Two towns in Andhra Pradesh emerged as the loci for the most popular Kalamkari art and unique styles of painting – Srikalahasti and Machlipatnam. Kalamkari artists, or ‘qualamkars” as they were referred to, first took to painting hangings and canopies for the towns’ main temples. They would use these hangings as backdrops for the idols worshiped in the temples and themes painted included anything inspired by nature, such as birds and trees, to scenes from Hindu mythology. Srikalahasti, or Kalahasti, was a temple town that had been a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus since the 6th century. Soon enough, pilgrims, tourists, Mughal courtiers, and the British, grew fond of the art and placed orders for the textiles to be used in apparel and to be exported to the West. In the Middle Eastern market, Kalamkari-painted fabrics were used as prayer rugs and door covers. Machlipatnam, especially, became a centre of mass production.
A highly intricate Kalamkari painting by the women artists of Dwarka from the ancient temple town of Kalahasti
THE PAINSTAKING PROCESS OF KALAMKARI
Both Machlipatnam and Kalahasti follow similar processes for creating Kalamkari paintings. Artists of Machlipatnam incorporate the use of wooden blocks for printing as well. These two centres of Kalamkari painting are ideal for supporting the art form; the Andhra artisans can easily source the cotton fabric on which to do the Kalamkari painting from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The state of Andhra Pradesh itself is rich in plant and vegetable resources like eggplant, tomato, and ladyfingers from which to extract the natural dyes to paint with. Most importantly, Kalamkari painting requires a natural water source that can be used to wash the colours from the painted fabrics without staining the paintings. In Kalahasti, the river, Swarnamukhi, serves this purpose, while in Machlipatnam, the Kalia canal emptying out in the Bay of Bengal is used. Before washing the final painting in the rivers, the artists boil it in alizarin and water. Gaja leaves from the local forest are sprinkled into this mixture. This ensures that the colours don’t run across the fabric when rinsed in the rivers. Final touches to the painting are done using a fine pen fashioned out of a tamarind twig; these include detailing scenes in Hindu mythology and adding more fine lines to motifs like peacocks and lotus flowers.
The ancient temple town of Kalahasti is a fountainhead for some of India’s most creative Kalamkari”; Source: Wikipedia article, ‘Srikalahasti,’ Author: రవిచంద్ర
The process of creating a Kalamkari painting is taxing 23-step one, all the way from dyeing and bleaching the cotton, to painting, starching, and rinsing the final fabric. Cow dung is used to treat the cotton, which is then doused in a mixture of buffalo milk and myrobalans or “kaaraykha podi,” which prevent the colours from smudging and merging with each other. The final painting is washed and dried about 20 times. Today, silk fabric has grown in popularity for use in Kalamkari painting. For the painting itself, a draft sketch is drawn using a burnt tamarind stick, and then the bamboo kalam is used for painting the bold black outlines, also known as “kasim,” which are filled in with bright colours. The black colour is derived from an aged mixture of jaggery and rusted iron. Yellow colour is derived dust from myrobalan fruit and pomegranate peels, red is derived from bark of madder or algirin and alum, and blue is derived from indigo. Several other flowers and plants are used to create different hues of various colours.
DWARKA PLUS – THE GIRLS OF KALAHASTI
Dwarka Plus is one of the suppliers of fabric from whom Sihasn has sourced its Kalamkari. Dwarka’s journey since its inception in 1999 is an inspiring story about the revival of an art in tandem with the empowerment of the women artists practicing it. Founded by Anita Reddy and her father, Dwaraknath Reddy, who reached out to 25 impoverished artisan families, Dwarka today is now a large and sophisticated network of women across South India who can avail of financial donations from the trust (entirely donated by its revenues), technical education opportunities, and employment in the Kalamkari craft. The Reddys had started by initially donating money towards helping the artisan families upgrade their businesses, as well as retailing Kalamkari art for the artisans. They had been moved by the severe plight of the artist-turned beggars. Thus was founded a trust, one of many initiatives, that today solicits immense financial support in the form of donations as well as generates revenues from the sale of Kalamkari fabrics. Today, the trust is a self-sufficient entity, which is entirely owned, managed, and funded by Dwarka’s now-empowered artisans.
Under Anita Reddy, Dwarka has grown into a vast women’s network that does some of the most outstanding Kalamkari art in the world and has breathed life into it through their sarees and other products
Young women taken in under Dwarka’s wing, train under master artists and become highly skilled within a short span of time. These women are taught and go on to execute the long and trying process of Kalamkari painting from treating and painting the fabric, to washing and drying the final painting. They can avail of money (in the form of donations) in the event that they face medical emergencies, exigencies of poverty, or financial constraints in expanding their business capabilities. Dwarka opens their eyes to the innumerable ways in which they can be creative in the art of Kalamkari, reinvent it, and make it relevant and fashionable in today’s apparel, home décor, and even stationary. Dwarka’s girls are ahead of today’s trends and are a success at every exhibition they display at. Anita Reddy won the prestigious Padma Shri in 2011 for her relentless efforts in supporting the trust’s women. Her work has resulted in the upliftment of some of the most marginalized Dalits in South Indian villages and has taken Kalamkari art to the international stage; in 2018, Dwarka presented their work at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.