Soulful strokes

Resilient tradition

Soulful strokes

This workshop was conducted by Padma Shri Kalamkari artist J Guruappa Chetty and his wife Girijamma Chetty. SPIC MACAY Virasaat has  taken up the challenging task of bringing renowned artists and musicians from across the country to different schools and institutions. Guruappa Chetty said, “Groups like SPIC-MACAY have kept traditions alive through these kinds of educative workshops. Many groups look for only profit but very few of them actually do it for the craft.”

Sukanya, a student belonging to the  Spastic Society of Karnataka enjoyed the Kalamkari workshop a lot. She explored new ways of holding the brush, sketching and would like to continue pursuing this art form in future. Manjunath, a  young adult with cerebral palsy  felt a deep transformation after using the brush. He was thrilled to use natural colours made out of jaggery water for his art work.Vidya Venkat, working with the creative arts unit of Spastic Society of Karnataka was thrilled to get an opportunity to expose both children and the teachers to Kalamkari.

J Gurappa Chetty began learning the art of Kalamkari from his father Lakshmaiah Chetty at the age of 13. He  has over time depicted in painstaking detail, legends from the Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharat, Bhagvatam, Panchatantra, New Testament, Buddha, traditional games, diverse colours and kinds of Indian weddings.

Sri Chetty was honoured with the title of  Shilpa Guru  in 2002 by the Crafts Council of India. He won the Presidential National Award for Crafstmanship in 1976 for his 20 metre Ramayana panel and also Kamaladevi Vishwa Karigar Award and Tulasi Samman from Bharat Kala Bhawan, Bhopal.

“The award is a tribute to Indian Art,” is how  J Gurappa Chetty reacted upon winning the President’s award. This year he was also honoured with the Padmashree award from the Government of India. His works have been taken to several foreign locations including Vienna, UK, Australia, China, and Canada where they received accolades from connoisseurs of art and crafts.

In 1980, M F Hussain praised  Chetty’s art. In response,   says the humble master, “It was nice that he drew a Ganesha in my guest book and gave appreciative remarks. Only in India, have I seen one artist appreciating another artist with such generosity.’’

The artist also shared some valuable facts about the origin and revival of this art form in India, “Our craft originated during the days of Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah in Andhra Pradesh. In Sri Kalahasti they use the brush which is very delicately crafted but in Machlipatanam they use blocks for the outline. A  variation of Kalamkari in Gujarat also started with brush but now they use blocks. I was fortunate enough to see that in Victoria Albert Hall, my grandfather’s and father’s Kalamkari work is being displayed. In recent times it was the pioneering effort of Kamala Devi  Chottopadhya, because of which Kalamkari art form was revived through  my father Lakshmaiah Chetty.”

Kalamkari is the art of using the kalam or pen to draw intricate free hand pictures with vegetable dyes. Red colour is obtained from  the herb, Indian Madder, yellow from myrobalan flower, blue from Indigo plant and black from iron fillings and sugar molasses.

The craft is an ancient one and mythology is the main source of themes for the Kalamkari artist as these works were primarily intended for use as back panels in temples. Making a single Kalamkari work involves as many as 17 stages with the cloth being washed at every step.

A variety of natural products are used, such as buffalo’s milk (to make the cloth sturdy) and dung (for bleaching).There are only a 100 to 200 Kalamkari artists left today in India. And of those, only  20 to 25 are masters.

There are many things in this craft that make it special. First of all, the designs are taken from epics which depict universal human values of kindness, caring and bonding but the cloth and the colours for the painting are prepared through scientific methods.

There are many scientific laws followed while washing the cloth in running water. This process helps to keep the colours intact and the motif does not blot.  The entire process is organic from beginning to end and takes its ingredients from nature.  Chetty is very keen to educate Kalamkari art to school children so that they understand the value of this art form and practice it.  He says that his plea to educate children  is yet to be answered by the collector of Chitoor district of Andhra Pradesh.

Guruappa Chetty also made the pioneering effort to make women learn the Kalamkari art form in India. He shares, “I told the government authorities, if you do not allow women to learn, I will not teach. When women learn, they teach their whole family but men only use their skills for commercial purposes. I have taught my daughter and some more women also. They have taught their families as well.”

Talking about the contribution of his own wife, he said, “I have been married for last 50 years. My wife was my student after our marriage but now she has become my guru. She helps me with the measurements of the colours and the alum, water etc because I have become forgetful.”

There are some practical problems associated with the marketing and procurement of raw materials in case of Kalamkari  because of which the art is struggling.  Mysore is very famous for the red sandalwood which is used for the art work. This wood has medicinal properties which has multipurpose utility hence its demand is raising.  Chetty said, “nowadays craftsmen are scared to use this wood as the department officials ask for bills from them and enquire about the source from where they got the wood. If they cannot provide necessary details then the wood is taken away.”

Chetty  has been requesting the government to promote schemes for growing indigo and Indian Madder, both being  important raw materials for this art form. He says, “this can help the farmers, not just me. We have requested the All India Handicrafts Board many times but in vain. Sometimes, I feel that true artists are not recognised.

Pingali Venkaiah, the artist from Andhra Pradesh who drew the national flag of India is almost unknown to the world. The pictures of the national leaders and the flag is there everywhere but the artist is hardly remembered. I would like to request the government that they should keep our traditional craft alive.”

The market is sluggish  at the moment for traditional crafts. It is difficult to take bulk orders for Kalamkari design as there are not enough hands to make it.  This art form is also dependant on the climate. Rainy season and the summers are also not very feasible for this craft as the cloth and the artist require a stable environment .

Chetty adds, “We no longer get travel allowance to visit exhibitions. Many other artists like musicians, vocalists and dancers are given train concessions but no such concessions for people like us. I request the government of our state to take some initiative to help us.”

Inspite of the hurdles its is facing in its struggle to survive and thrive, Kalamkari art form is actually a window to India’s cultural heritage. Thankfully, it still lives in the skilled  hands of Padmashree J Guruappa Chetty who dreams for a better future for the art.

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