Dance has been my longing and calling so far. It creates a divine rhythm that quietens the mind and calms the soul. I had never thought in my wildest of dreams that I would find the same rhythm in weaving. But, for my love for sarees! During my difficult years, when I could not dance, Nirguna was born. Nirguna, a store to promote handlooms! It has made me travel into the faraway interiors and only I know how much at home I feel in the midst of these villagers. A home away from home! The love and warmth they shower strengthens one’s commitment to work for them.
This time I landed up in the interiors of Andhra Pradesh, in its Kalamkari belt. As the taxi sped towards Machlipatnam, a coastal town about 350 kms from Hyderabad, I was lost in the breathtaking view of the countryside. The blue serene sky smiled at me behind the lush green vast meadows crowned with coconut and plam trees. Suddenly, the green fields were draped with colours. As the sun played hide and seek, the golden aura casted a magical spell.
I was out running into the fields like a child to grab the colourful cloth; touch it, feel it and behold it! I had landed in the land of Chitrakatis or Qualamkars. It was magical!
The oldest evidence is a small piece of dye cloth found in the remains of Mahenjo Daro. This technique was developed by the Chitrakattis, a group of musicians and painters around 3000 years ago. Chitrakattis would move from villages to villages singing verses from the mythology, glorifying the mythological heroes and painting their story on cloth . Kalamkari gained popularity as a temple art in the south of India in the Kingdom of Vijaynagar. The Sultans of Golconda discovered this artform and named it Kalamkari. Kalam meaning pen and kari meaning craftsmanship. Kalamkari is the craftsmanship with a pen. The Sultans promoted the work in the machlipatnam area. The designs became more secular during the Mughal period and had a lot of persioan influence. During the 17th and 18th century, trade of Kalamkari fabrics flourished. The kalamkari designs evolved with time imbibing the western thoughts after the british rule. The fascinating colours and artistry, light texture, durability of kalamkari fabrics appealed to the taste of the women in England and France. It’s multifarious uses was another reason for it’s demand in the western market. The British East India Company and the French East India Company asked for western designs mainly floral patterns to cater to European markets. Srikalhasti continued with the mythological theme with patronage from Hindu rulers. However, in Tanjavur, a new style emerged with the patronage of the Maratha rulers.
Kalamkari has two different and unique style. A free hand drawing or penn kalamkari is practiced in the Srikalahasti region and block printing is the prerogative of the Machlipatnam region of Andhra Pradesh. The Persian and Dutch influence can be prominently seen in Machlipatnam style of Kalamkari.
My local friends requested the artisans to explain the technique. And the story telling with a practical experience into the making began. Kalamkari fabric is made by a process of resist dyeing and hand printing. This is a very slow and tedious process that requires abundant sunlight and flowing water. Thus, it takes anywhere a month or two for a fabric to be ready for sale.
The plain fabric is first bleached with a mixture of cow dung and buffalo milk and kept overnight so that the fabric is bleached uniformly. It is then dried for a day. This cloth is then washed in myrobalan solution prepared from myrobalan dried flowers/seeds. The tannin in myrobalan helps in absorption of iron and alum salts evenly. The cloth is then stretched out on tables to give the first impressions on the fabric using hand blocks. The wooden blocks are made of teak wood, neem wood, Jack wood and Poovarasu wood. The wooden blocks used are mainly of three types and locally named as Masa, Tapki and Kappu. Masa is used to print only the outlines, Tapki to fill the outlines and Kappu to colour the background. The first print can be either the outline or the background using mordants namely alum or Iron acetate.
The fabric is then washed in flowing water, pond, canal or river for degumming and removing unwanted mordant. The printed fabric is then boiled in copper vessels with jajaku leaves and alizerine for color fixation. The cloth is again dried under the sun in open feilds. Other dried flowers/seeds are also used for getting the required colour. For example, Water mixed with only myrobalan flowers gives yellow colour. The second round of printing starts with colours like yellow, green etc.
The cloth again goes for washing with alum solution for colour fixation.The cloth is finally washed with soap and dried for few days. The cloth is now ready to find its way to the merchandisers. The entire process takes 1-2 months and is again dependent on the mercy of nature as it requires abundant sunlight and water.
Traditionally Kalamkari has been used as wall hangings. In today’s world Kalamkari sarees, dupattas, fabrics are sought after. Kalamkari has got a contemporary touch and is used in a wide range of home, life style produtcs and accessories.
The value of Kalamkari is not only in its intricate, mesmerizing designs but also in the painstaking labour and the undying spirit of these craftsmen. Salute!