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Kalamkari: The subtle art of pen artistry

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Kalamkari, a time-honored and highly revered style of traditional Indian art, can be seen at ancient 17th-century temples to modern-day homes and canvases.

'Kalamkari' is the age-old intricate style of hand-painting known for its rich earthy tones ranging from the crimson of the night, the regal gold shades of the sun, the humble and turgid brown, the heavenly blues of the sky to the verdant, youthful green of the leaves.


Deriving its name from the Persian word 'kalam,' this ancient art form of hand painting is done with pens made of tamarind, painting cotton and silk fabrics using natural dyes.

There are two different forms of Kalamkari art in India: the Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style.

While the Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari work involves vegetable-dyed block-painting of a fabric, the Srikalahasti is a much more detailed style involving freehand painting.

the Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style.

Srikalahasti style flourished in temples oriented towards forging distinctive religious identities, appearing on scrolls, temple hangings, chariot banners, and representations of innumerous deities.

From flowers, peacocks, paisleys to divine characters of Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana- a myriad potpourri of motifs can be found in Kalamkari art.

Centuries ago, folk singers and artists would travel from village to village, narrating stories from Hindu mythology to the common people.

However, with time, the technique of telling stories evolved into canvas painting, and this is when Kalamkari art first saw the light of day.

However, it was during the Mughal period that this painting style earned its first note of recognition. Mughals fostered this technique in the Golconda and Coromandel provinces, where skilled artisans (known as Qualamkars) practiced it.

skilled artisans (known as Qualamkars)

This is how the technique and the term Kalamkari developed. This art thrived in Machilipatnam(as the Machilipatnam style) in the Krishna area of Andhra Pradesh in the Golconda sultanate and later, it was further promoted and fostered by the Britishers as a resplendent pattern on clothes in India during the 18th century.

Making a Kalamkari painting is as intricate and delicate as the precise painting itself and includes up to 23 conscientious steps. Before starting, the artist gathers the following raw materials: cotton cloth, dried unripe fruit, milk for the 'mordant,' charcoal sticks, black kasimi liquid, alum solution, and red, indigo natural yellow colors.

Machilipatnam(as the Machilipatnam style)

The first step is to prepare the cotton to absorb colors by washing it to remove starch, sun-drying it completely, then treating it as a fixative with the mordant.

The artist then draws the center image with charcoal sticks and outlines it with a finely pointed kalam dipped in kasimi liquid. The kalam is wrapped in wool, which retains the fluid, thus the artist squeezes this wool while painting to release the ink.

After the black outline has been set, the artist may apply an alum mordant to the fabric and begin introducing red color.

Following a few additional washes and dryings, the last steps are to paint the landscape with indigo and yellow dyes.

A yellow dye is applied to red regions to make orange, and indigo dye is used to yellow regions to make green.

kalam dipped in kasimi liquid

All in all, this time-consuming process takes many days since the fabric and ink must dry completely between steps. But, in the end, the time and work are of righteous value since the finished colors are vibrant and gorgeous, and the pictures are enthralling in their depth and intricacy.

kalamkari painting

Kalamkari is a celebration of love for art, tradition, and culture, with exhilaration that radiates through each painting. It is a reminder of how important art is to our sense of satisfaction and well-being, and how it is amalgamated to culture and tradition, and how art is unique in its capacity to reconnect us with our humanity and our past.

Kalamkari painting

Today, it is difficult to celebrate Kalamkari's long heritage without pondering about its future. Like so many other kinds of traditional Indian art, Kalamkari is a generational craft, which means that a father or grandfather would generally educate his offspring in the family profession.

This is how it has been kept and passed down for many years. But with the plethora of career options available, this ancient art form is dying out like many others.

Kalamkari painting

And so with the age of digitization, people have become vary of the situation of losing this rich cultural heritage we carry and thus have started implementing it on various textiles and fabrics with a digital approach trying to save this golden legacy we carry with ourselves.

Author: Akash Rupam Ekka Editor: Rachita Biswas

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