Kalamkari, also called pen work, refers to textiles that are printed or painted using a particular technique. Although, painted textiles have been recovered from the Indus Valley Civilisation, modern kalamkari can be traced to 17th century Andhra Pradesh.
Kalamkari, like most other Indian textile arts, owes its birth to temple rituals. Kalamkari textiles were used as props during storytelling sessions in temple precincts. The stories were generally of our gods and goddesses and the listeners were devotees who would gather in the temple after the evening aarti, prayers.
While the motifs of kalamkari are drawn from Hindu mythology, some of them owe a lot to Persian influences, which came into this area when trade links were established between Safavid Persia and the Qutub Shahi dynasty in Golconda. The two centres of kalamkari were Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti on the Coromandel Coast in eastern India.
Kalamkari textiles were used to decorate temples and palaces as well as for narrative scrolls, but over the years, they began to be used for household purposes like furnishings and even clothing.
In British India, kalamkari fabrics were particularly popular as bedcovers and came to be called palangposh, palampore, and went by the generic term chintz.
The procedure for producing a kalamkari starts?with preparing the cloth?which is first bleached then?soaked in myrobalan solution mixed with fresh buffalo milk. The outlines are?then drawn in red and?black. The cloth is then?washed in running water?before sunrise, then starched and waxed. The kalam, pen, is made of a bamboo stick at the end of which a thick pad of human hair is attached and figures are drawn with this pen or a wooden block. Red, blue, yellow and green are the main colours.
The kalamkars, kalamkari artists, worked with the techniques of a mural painter. The usual themes were taken from the Puranas as well as from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The kalamkars were able to produce two dimensional figures that equalled temple sculptures and murals, and thus had a visual presence both as narratives and icons. Kalamkari textiles thrived on both Hindu and Muslim court patronage, Persian trade and export to Indonesia and Europe. The Coromandel Coast was known for its red vegetable dye, and because of the presence of abundant running water which was rich in calcium salts from decomposing seashells, the colours were fast and vibrant. Kalamkari textiles were exported to Europe and became extremely popular not only for household purposes but also for garments, and very soon became fashionable among upper-class European women.
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