The Art of Kalamkari, South India

The Art of Kalamkari: South India

Painting, one of the most primitive expressions of visual art and communication has been a medium which has overtime enjoyed an explorative odyssey of being executed in varied techniques. The Indian artist manifested the aesthetic perception of culture and traditions by creating a harmony of visuals and emotions on extensive array of surfaces. From rocks to walls, bark of trees to metal surfaces, terracotta to glass, the Indian artist has delved into almost every possible kind of surface to articulate his imagination. Textiles are considered the most comprehensively used materials which has been illustrating the creative dexterity of the Indian artists.

The Indian subcontinent has been known for its rich, assorted textile traditions going back to almost 3000 years. Over centuries, diverse materials and ingenious techniques have been illustrating the vibrant social and traditional nuances of the people of this land. Topography, climatic conditions, cultural influences, trade contacts, religious beliefs and various other factors influenced the opulent textile heritage of the country and inspired the textile artists/artisans to explore the profusion of textile techniques.

Process of making Kalamkari
The Art of Kalamkari is an ancient and exquisite form of textile painting which has a heritage dating back to the ancient times. The term traces down its origin to the early period of alliance between the Persian and Indian trade merchants and identified any painted textile art form. Persian word Kalam or qalam allude to a pen or an instrument used for painting whereas the Urdu word Kari implies the craftsmanship involved and hence Kalamkari denotes the myriad manifestations of hand painted textiles.

Map of the Coromondal Coast, 

Historically, the art of Kalamkari most prevalently represented the textile arts practiced all over the Coromandal cost stretching from Machalipatnam at the north to southern parts of India, especially in areas like Kalahasti, Salem, Madura, Palakolu, Machalipatnam, Tanjore, Eleimbedu in Chengalpet, and in Cocanada districts.[1]

In present times, it epitomizes the technique of painting using natural dyes on textiles. Consequently, the wide range of hand painted and natural dyed textiles of India executed in various parts of the country are popularly recognized as the Art of Kalamkari.

In Southern India, Sri Kalahasti the pilgrimage city located on the banks of River Swarnamurki and renowned for the Shiva temple Sri Kalahasteewara has been considered one of the most prominent Kalamkari centers. The art form flourished under the royal as well as local patronage of the Hindu rulers in between the 13th to 16th centuries CE. The mythological textile paintings of this region served as narrative murals or temple hangings. Hindu epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Shiv Purana, Vishnu Purana and other legendary myths and tales were narrated and illustrated in elaborate ornate style in vibrant color palette of red, white, black, blue, yellow and green.
Epic of Ramayana painted in Kalamkari technique, Sri Kalahasti, Image

Tree of Life on Palampore, 19th Century. 
Image Credit-National Gallery of Australia
In Northern Andhra Pradesh, the port town of Masulipatnam was a prominent trading site along the Coromondal Coast from where Kalamkari was traded to far off lands. Under the Golconda Ruler Qutab Shahi and his international trade alliance, Kalamkari textiles gained significance in Persian Safavid Empire for personal and domestic utilization. It was also the rulers of the Outb Shahi dynasty that gave the craft its name "kalamkari"--derived from qalamkor, an artisan who works with the pen.The Persian influence introduced an array of intricate forms and motifs representing trees, floral motifs, creepers and animal figures. With the advent of the Mughal Empire, new style of textile paintings emerged which represented personal portraits of the emperors along with panels depicting sagas of their rule and daily life. During this period Iran became a dominant patron of the art form and several centers were opened in the country to meet up with the Iranian demand for the textile art.

The art form adapted multitude patterns portraying religious beliefs, flora and fauna, ornamental motifs and the like under the influence of diverse patrons. Religious beliefs, traditional ethos, trade and cultural exchanges influenced the art of Kalamkari and extended its application from temple hangings to products of daily use. The Dutch and Europeans introduced the art form to assorted collection of products like home furnishings, canopies and garments.

Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom for Indonesian Market
Image Credit: National Gallery Australia
In history of Indian economics, Kalamkari textiles obtain imperative recognition as a medium of currency used in the spice trade. A wide range of ceremonial and ritual textiles as well as fabrics for apparels were created for Southeast Asia and Indonesia who were known for their exotic spices and oils and hence became significant patrons of the art form. This in return reflected back key aesthetical and cultural inspiration in the evolution of the art of Kalamkari. The European market declared it as part of the opulent Indian luxury goods and during the 18th to 19th century, Kalamkari textiles adorned the British Empire with exclusive hand painted home furnishings and dress materials.

Chintz Palampore, Image
 During the 19th Century, Chintz or Indian painted/printed cotton cloth became popular in Europe. Originally the term Chintz implied a pattern created on cotton fabric with a bamboo pen or kalam and dyed with mordants and resists. With the increase in demand block printing became the most favored medium. The shiny surface of the textile was created by finishing it with polishing it with a shell or other natural substance. 

Over centuries this textile tradition has undergone series of transformations. The strong spiritual base of the art form creating the most splendorous textile murals with time became the most flourishing popular culture. It then metamorphosed into a secular craft under the patronage of Muslim rulers and became to be known as a luxury good by the Europeans.The art of Kalamkari in Southern India has historically been one of the most significant textile traditions and still is practiced with equivalent fervor and dexterity.

Over the years the patrons and appreciators bespoke various names for the art form, the Portugese called it pintado, the Dutch used the name sitz, and the British preferred chintz. Along with the myriad range of names, the technique contributed in creating innumerable textile product range and till today is considered as one of the most celebrated textile art forms in India.

[1] Percy Brown in Arts and Crafts of India, 1903