Kalamkari often brings to mind the beautiful hand-drawn and painted motifs of Gods and Goddesses that adorned the temple walls in the past. This form of Kalamkari is however practised only in Srikalahasti. The same craft has an equally popular variant, which is prevalent in a small town called Pedana, about 13 km from Machilipatnam, Krishna district in coastal Andhra Pradesh.
This town is home to Kalamkari textiles that are made by block printing using vegetable dyes. The Kalamkari craft at Pedana evolved with patronage of the Mughals and later on the Golconda sultanate. The word Kalamkari literally means “drawing with a pen”.
The town of Machilipatnam has existed since the 3rd century BCE (Satavahana period) and was also a part of the Silk Route. Situated on the Coromandel coast where the Krishna river enters the Bay of Bengal, Machilipatnam was a port with flourishing sea trade. During the Kakatiya rule, the port finds mention in Marco Polo’s accounts as Masulipatnam.
While there are many block printing traditions across the country – like Ajrakh, Sanganer, Bagru to name a few, what makes Kalamkari stand out are the beautiful Indo-Persian designs and the fresh earthy colours that result from use of natural dyes. The designs have a definite character; the more popular motifs being Persian like creepers, flowers and leaf designs all spread artistically across the fabric. The rich variety of design elements are a result of fusion between the Hindu and Muslim cultures.
As with most handicrafts, the end product(and at times the price tag) often belies the enormous effort that goes into making them. The meticulous craft of Kalamkari involves a series of laborious steps on the fabrics – to accentuate the beauty of the delicate patterns and the depth of colours from natural dyes. Skilled artisans are assigned to handle various tasks like making the blocks, preparing dyes, treating the cloth, washing, printing and drying. The services of at least 8 craftsmen are required in creating Kalamkari fabric of a single design.
The wooden blocks are made to order as per the design provided. The designs are first drawn on paper and copied onto a wooden block. To achieve a specific design on the fabric would require the creation of at least 2-3 blocks – one for the outline, the other to fill the colours of the flowers, and/or leaves and other details. Carving is special skill developed with a lot of practice and patience.
The colours used for dyeing are procured from natural sources like vegetables, minerals and flowers, leaves and bark of different trees. The unique red tone is obtained from a solution of alum and tamarind seed powder. Tamarind seeds are powdered and boiled, until it mixes with water – and then left to cool. This solution is filtered using a muslin cloth. Alum works as a mordant and helps fix the colour. Like-wise, iron ore is used to make black dye where the ore is powdered and boiled to make a solution. Process of cooling and filtering is involved while making all vegetable dyes.
The fabrics created using vegetable dyes are far more popular as the natural colours lend a greater appeal. On the flip side, natural dyes take longer to prepare and greater effort is required for these colours render best only with running water. And hence they are more expensive.
When the dye is ready, it is directly applied onto fabric with the help of a wooden block. Depending on the design, repeated colouring of the fabric maybe required. After every round of colouring the fabrics are spread in sunlight for drying. If one were to watch the artisans at work, it is quite impressive how they get the position of the blocks so accurate (without any graphic aids) that the horizontal and vertical spacing are even.
Once the printing is complete, colours are put carefully. The fabric is later dipped in water to help colours get absorbed in the fabric evenly.
Machilipatnam has proved an ideal location for the craft of Kalamkari to thrive due to conducive weather conditions, availability of natural resources for dyes and mordants, running waters, and plenty of sunshine. Since 2013, Machilipatnam Kalamkari possesses the Geographical Index tag and production is geographically limited to the town of Pedana, and neighbouring villages of Machilipatnam, Polavaram and Kappaladoddi in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh.
The unique appeal of the Kalamkari fabrics lies in the richness of its colours – a result of rapid absorption of natural dyes, and delicate repetitive motifs that are an amalgamation of expressions from Persian and Indian cultures.
In recent years it has become a favourite among many designers and has found patronage with the elite and stylish. As is evident from the link below.
- Mr. Pitchuka Srinivas : +91 08672-248424, Syamala Arts & Crafts, Pedana, Machilipatnam, Krishna District
- Ms. Suraiyya Hassan Bose : +91 4023563792, House of Kalamkari and Dhurries, 1-86 Hussain Shawali Darga, Hyderabad, Telangana