To save a traditional craft

To save a traditional craft

Kalamkari

To save a traditional craft

The word ‘kalamkari’ is a conjoint of kalam (pen) and kari (work). In practice, this is a craft in which a textile is hand-painted with a kalam — a bamboo stick honed to a point at one end — using vegetable and mineral dyes.

The dyes are used to block print cloth, too. The craft has been prevalent across traditional textile centres of India — Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh are two well-known examples. Another centre that has been instrumental in popularising kalamkari is the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC), a division of Kalakshetra in Chennai. In its subdivision of the Kalamkari Unit, saris, bedspreads, salwar-kameez sets are printed as well as hand-painted.

Kalakshetra was set up in 1936 by the celebrated bharatnatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale to create a favourable space to pursue diverse artistic endeavours, including kalamkari.

Shakuntala Ramani, chairperson of Kalakshetra’s Craft Education and Research Centre, has been associated with the foundation since the 1960s. A passionate supporter of traditional Indian crafts, she has authored Kalamkari and Traditional Design Heritage of India (2007).

She shares the centre’s role in the revival of kalamkari...

How was the ‘kalamkari’ division incorporated into Kalakshetra?

When India was under the British rule, the fashion in Indian textile industry had fallen to such low levels as to copy the Union Jack motif on saree and dhoti borders! Distressed by this trend, Rukmini Devi decided to revive the traditional colours and motifs of Indian textiles, and also the Kanchipuram tradition of weaving, to produce the textiles required for her dance-drama productions. For her, it was not only the traditional dance form and the classical music, but also the costumes that had to be true to Indian ethos. So, she set up a weaving unit at Kalakshetra and engaged craftsmen from Kanchipuram and other places to produce these sarees, which soon became popular as ‘Kalakshetra sarees’. The kalamkari division was started in collaboration with the Craft Council of India.

What are the dyeing and designing processes in ‘kalamkari’? 

Kalamkari textiles are wholly organic because the natural colours are derived from dye-yielding plants and herbs. Right from the processing of the cloth to the application of colours, the craft is based on ancient practices adopted in villages that have stood the test of time. Kalamkari fabrics, dubbed as ‘chintz’ by English traders as far back as 1611, formed a major part of trade of the East Indian Company, and from 1600 to 1800, India was the world’s largest exporter of this fabric.

In kalamkari, the fabric is first mordanted in a solution of myrobalan, a valuable vegetable-dye fixative. The main dye used for drawing the outlines with the kalam is a country-made iron acetate liquor, produced by soaking iron scrap in jaggery liquor, which is known as kasim. After the outlines are drawn, other colours are developed by painting a solution of alum to the portions which are to be coloured red, which is developed in a dye containing both the requisite herbs. The colour red gets fixed only on areas painted with alum. The dyes used in kalamkari are made from natural products — kadukkai (harde whole), turmeric, molasses, cochineal, indigo and flower extracts.

How has your centre helped in the preservation and promotion of ‘kalamkari’?

The CERC started the kalamkari section with experts from Srikalahasti and Machilipatnam. As part of the development of natural dyes, it worked on the application of dyes to fabrics. In the technique of patterning with natural dyes by block printing, the cloth is first mordanted with kadukkai, or myrobalan. Other vegetable colours are then printed on it with wooden blocks. Many hand-carved wooden blocks were sourced from the Madras Museum, and block prints from Gujarat, Jaipur and Machilipatnam. With these designs as base, new designs were developed in our centre. The development of a spectrum of new vegetable dyes and their application to a variety of materials were two important
innovations done here. Students from prestigious fashion institutes visit our centre to learn the craft.

What are the threats that ‘kalamkari’ faces today?

Most traditional crafts are labour-intensive and depend on locally available materials. The strength of kalamkari has always been its vegetable dyes, which faced no competition from other textile centres of the world, where vegetable dyes were few and their use was not well-established. The decline started in 19th century when cheap aniline dyes were imported by the British and found favour among Indian craftsmen. This threat still looms large in many kalamkari centres. Unfortunately, traditional craftsmen are allured by
easy-to-use chemical dyes. The chemical dye Alizarine, for instance, is widely used instead of the dye from manjishta plant, the roots of which yield a beautiful shade of red. Similarly, natural indigo is often replaced by a chemical called German blue.

Are ‘kalamkari’ merchandise sold at Kalakshetra?

This craft centre produces sarees, dupattas, dress material among others, all from kalamkari printed textiles. We have our own sales outlet, and the public is welcome to buy our products.

However, because of the unique nature of the craft, production is limited. We have catalogues of block patterns, and customers often avail of this facility to design their own block-printed sarees and other garments. We also display and sell our material during Kalakshetra’s annual dance festival.

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