Srikalahasti :: hand-painted Kalamkari

During a visit to Srikalahasti earlier this year, I hoped to visit the famous hand-painted Kalamkari fabrics workshops to see for myself the work that went into making these beautiful paintings that once adorned the walls of many temples. Also, since I had seen the hand block printed Kalamkari fabrics at Machilipatnam last year, it would be interesting to see the contrast as well as similarities.

When I landed at the town on a Sunday, to my bad luck many most of the artists were on a holiday or travelling to larger cities to exhibit their works. When I managed to find some workshops, mostly ladies were busy filling in colours to images that were already drawn on fabrics.

Work in progress at a Kalamkari workshop in Srikalahasti

Much to my dismay, most of these workshops seemed to use artificial colours. When I enquired if this was how it was done traditionally, they only explained this was what most designers or clients want to see and buy (and very rarely do they find someone insisting on natural dyes). Moreover, using artificial colours significantly reduced their work (and hence the cost). Finally, I found only one workshop just before I left, where the ladies were colouring on one or two fabrics using only natural dyes.

A saree being hand-painted with natural dyes – Seen here are motifs of flowers, leaves and peacocks on a black backgound

Recently, when I heard of a Kalamkari hand-painting workshop that was organised by Daaram a popular handloom store in Hyderabad, I went in almost resigning to the fact that I was going to learn/understand the technique using chemical dyes.

I was more than pleasantly surprised when our instructors  explained the entire process of making a painting with natural dyes. And my respect for the authentic practitioners increased manifold as I realised it takes a series of many laborious steps to make a complete painting.

Preparation of Cloth

One starts with cotton cloth that is made on a power loom. The fabric is washed thoroughly without any detergent and beaten to remove impurities and starch. And then dried.

For 3 mtrs of cloth: mix 100 gm of myrobalan nut (karakkai in Telugu, harad in Hindi) paste and 2 litres of buffalo milk. Soak the fabric nicely, wring it and then leave it to dry. This treatment ensures the fabric is able to absorb the required metallic mordant from the dyes to develop a permanent colour. The fat content in the milk (buffalo milk is preferred for higher fat content) is necessary to prevent the dye from spreading while painting.

The treated cloth can be used for about a month if stored in a dry place and is not exposed to moisture or strong sunlight.

Preparation of Kalams

The Kalam is an ink pen used to draw onto the cloth. Cloth is wound around a bamboo reed, over which considerable length of wool is tied. On one end, the bamboo is given a thin and sharp tip.  When this pen is dipped into the dye, the woollen ball absorbs the dye and as the artist holds the loaded kalam, he gently presses the woolen ball as he works on filling the colour on to the cloth.

Kalams with a broad tip are used to draw thicker lines and filling in larger areas.

After each use, kalams are to be thoroughly washed such that when they are squeezed the woolen ball runs clear water..

Drawing the figures

The sketches are drawn with charcoal made from burnt tamarind twigs, and then once again drawn over with the kalam. Once the iron solution (from dye) gets in contact with the myrobalan(from the initial treatment of cloth), the line turns black. Great care needs to be taken so that even a small drop doesn’t spill or smudge on the fabric as there is no option to erase. As all the sketches are done free hand, the artist must be very careful not to spill even a drop. The outlines are allowed to dry for about a minute, after which excess dye can be carefully removed by an absorbent (blotting) cloth.

The important features of Srikalahasti Kalamkari drawings include:

  • The themes revolve around Gods and are often scenes from the epics Ramayana, Mahabharatha or Bhagavathapuranam
  • Rounded faces, long and big eyes are common to the Gods and Goddesses depicted
  • Elaborate detailing and embellishment on the costumes as well as jewellery.
  • Simple colour schemes  with red, yellow, blue, green and black being dominant, and very little use of shading.
  • Beaded lines are used very often in borders.
  • Flora and fauna are used generously – flowers, creepers, leaves, birds, peacocks, elephants are most commonly seen

Preparation of Dyes

The beautiful soft hues of colours show up only when they are derived from natural sources. The colours commonly used are: red, yellow, blue, green and black. Each artist prepares his own dyes from flowers, fruits roots, seeds and other natural sources. The ingredients are easily available but making the dyes involves a considerable amount of time and effort.

Black dye, also called kasimkaram : This is mostly used for outlines and lends black colour on to the fabric. It is prepared by mixing 1/2 kg of jaggery, 100 gm of palm jaggery, rusted iron and 5 litres of water and soak for around 15 days. On the 13th day one can remove iron pieces.

Red dye : 100 gm of alum (spatikam in Telugu, phitkiree in Hindi) powder in a glass of water gives the red dye. Adding a little bit of black or kasimkaram will make it maroon.

Blue dye: Blue colour comes from the indigo plant.

Yellow dye: Mix 100 gms of dry powder of pomegranate peel and flower  in 1 litre of boiled water gives a yellow colour.

Green dye: The yellow dye solution mixed with some kasimkaram gives a greenish mehendi colour. When yellow dye is mixed with indigo a brighter tone of green is achieved.

To arrive at the correct shade and tone consistently one would need to work on it regularly and will probably come with practice and experience.

After the colouring and dyeing process, the paintings are finally washed in flowing river water and hung to dry in strong sunlight. The natural colours are said to fix well, with help from flowing water as well as strong sunlight, hence most workshops are found in the vicinity of a river.

An intricate “tree of life” depiction made by P Ramachandraiah

The Tree of Life is a commonly occuring theme in Kalamkari – both Srikalahasti style (as seen in image above) as well as Machilipatnam style paintings.

The highly detailed and elaborate motif features a central flowering tree growing from a mound and surrounded by flowers, leaves, animals or birds. They were  hand-created with natural dyes and unique designs. The intricate detail and ornate design using plants leaves and flowers are said to signify abundance and the inclusion of birds and animals indicate the harmony and balance.


Kalamkari process (a useful pdf I found online)

For inquiries on Kalamkari paintings/fabrics, dyes, techniques or workshop please contact :

  • Ms. Inakollu Geetha : +91 9949363769

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