A legacy of timeless art

A legacy of timeless art

Celebrated artist Gurappa Chetty infused passion and vision into the ancient art of Kalamkari and gave it a glorious new life. A tribute.

‘Life Of Christ’, central tableau. (Pic courtesy: Anna L Dallapiccola)

A few days ago, I attended a virtual talk titled ‘Gods And Heroes’ organised by the Bangalore International Centre. The talk was by Anna L Dallapiccola, renowned for her writings on South Indian paintings. Elaborately illustrated by visuals of 19 Kalamkari hangings from the collection of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, London, the presentation was a feast for the eyes and the mind.

Kalamkaris are cloth hangings, which were commissioned by Hindu temples and mathas, monasteries, as well as by individuals for religious use. Long stretches of cloth, depicting stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Krishna Leela etc., were hung as backcloths of icons, or in temple courtyards, especially during festive seasons. They were produced by the Kalamkari process of free hand-drawing, mordant-dyeing and painting in natural or organic dyes on thick cloth, a complex technique that reached its highest expression in South India.

The majority of the 19 pieces in the collection that was presented, were from coastal Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Tamil and Telugu inscriptions helped the viewers decode the illustrated scenes.

All this material belonged to the 19th century, except for one remarkable 20th century hanging from Srikalahasti, which depicted the Life of Christ, in the style of a traditional Hindu Kalamkari hanging, drawn by artist and master craftsman Jonnalagadda Gurappa Chetty, renowned exponent of the art of Kalamkari from Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh. Gurappa Chetty had been commissioned to paint the ‘The Life of Christ’ Kalamkari by the Festival of India-UK Committee in 1985, confirmed Ambassador P A Nazareth, who was at that time, a member of the committee. “You would have noticed that every corner of the painting bore crosses,” he said to me. “This symbolised the suffering and agony of Christ, which he bore for the love and everlasting redemption of humankind.”

I called J Niranjan, eminent Kalamkari artist and my friend at Srikalahasti. He is the only son of  Guruppa Chetty. I told him about this talk and that I was sending him a link to make sure that he showed it to his father. Nothing prepared me for the shock that was to follow my conversation. Niranjan told me that his father had passed away a few days ago (13 February 2021), having succumbed to a long illness. Gurappa Chetty was a titan in the world of arts and crafts in South India, someone who all of us revered and were so proud of. He had a special connection with Bengaluru. I was in tears and could not continue the conversation.

Not an easy craft

Jonnalagadda Gurappa Chetty was born in 1937 in the temple town of Srikalahasti. His father J Lakshmaiah Chetty was one of the last surviving Kalamkari artists in Andhra Pradesh in the 1940s. Young Gurappa started learning his craft from his father at the age of 13. The art form was then known as Vrathapani, a special form of Kalamkari, which deals with the art of storytelling, patronised by the temples of South India. Around the 1940s, the craft began to dwindle, with growing loss of patronage from temples and zamindars. Gurappa Chetty felt that the government should actively help to preserve the culture of their peoples. The craft later on, came to be known as ‘Kalamkari’, which comes from the Urdu word ‘kalam’, which means pen and ‘kari’, which means craftsmanship. 

Kalamkari is not an easy craft to master. It involves several long steps of priming the cotton cloth, with milk, alum dissolved in water, sheep or cow dung and constant washing under running water. Outlines of the drawings are done with bamboo pens in a black dye made with infused iron filings, fixed and then filled in with natural colours. Each colour has to be fixed before the next colour can be added, or else the colours will get smudged. The organic colours are said to have medicinal properties that protect the cloth from insects.

Gurappa became a school teacher, but he continued his work with Kalamkari painting. He underwent a Teacher’s Training Course between 1955-57 and also between 1957-59 from the All India Handicrafts Board. “Gurappa Chetty came often to Bengaluru to conduct training programmes in Kalamkari and natural dyes at the Regional Design and Technical Centre,” said Mr B M Dattatreya, former Deputy Director at the Centre, adding that he was a great teacher.

Ms Vimala  Rangachar, Patron and former Chairperson of the Crafts Council of Karnataka, mourns his passing away and remembers his great desire to propagate the craft form. He excelled in his craft and in recognition for his outstanding contribution to Kalamkari, was awarded the Presidential National Award for Craftsmanship in 1976, the title of ShilpaGuru in 2002, an award to celebrate the 50 years of All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB) and the Padma Shri in 2008.

Big-hearted artist

“Gurappaji was a man with a big heart and immense curiosity and interest in the social realities around him,” says Gita Ram, a good friend of his and currently Chair of the National Apex Body, Crafts Council of India. He would come to Chennai often and update her about some new craft or craftsperson that he had learnt about. An expert in natural dyes, “Gurappa Chetty was a frequent visitor to the Dakshina Chitra Museum,” says Deborah Thiagarajan, Founder and Managing Trustee of the Madras Craft Foundation that runs the Museum. “Gurappa Chetty gave me three indigo plants to grow in Dakshina Chitra to motivate me on the subject of natural dyes. When he visited next, he found that they had died. He gave me some more. But they also died and he then told me categorically that he would not give me any more,” rues Deborah. The museum has four of his Kalamkari paintings, all on the subject of nature, a much-valued treasure trove.

Gurappa Chetty was a founder of the Paramparik Karigar, an association of craftspersons, formed in 1980, for the purpose of preserving and promoting the traditional arts and crafts of  India. The association strives for an environment conducive for the craftspersons to create their exquisite pieces of art and to create an awareness and understanding of the craft so that works of master craftsmen are recognised as art forms.

What are the challenges that face the beautiful craft of Kalamkari? Should it continue to be practiced in the traditional manner, which its votaries like Gurappa Chetty believed so passionately in? Or should the craft modernise its process, develop and target new domestic and international markets, engage in new design development and product diversification? Addressing these questions would be the ideal tribute to an artist like Chetty.

The author is a former Chairperson of the Crafts Council of Karnataka.

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