Or Qalamkari (meaning brushwork/pen craftsmanship), a traditional textile art whereby cotton cloth is decorated with free-hand painting or block printing using only vegetable dyes.

Many of the textiles we enjoy are based on traditional kalamkari designs, such as the Tree of Life. Designs  and printing blocks collected from and brought back from the Coromandel coast, which is the home of kalamkari, were used as the basis and inspiration for many of  our ‘traditional’ fabric designs and chintz  curtaining fabric – reference the  archives of GP & J Baker.

Believed to be at least 3,000 years old, rare surviving kalamkari textile fragments have been found in Cairo, Greece, Central Asia and Arabia, showing how this ancient technique travelled along the earliest trading routes.  Kalamkari  flourished in 17thC Moghul India, and following contemporary commercial links between India and Europe, it was sourced from the Coromandel coast especially by the Dutch, English and the Provençal (Percy Brown in his “Arts and Crafts of Indiaa descriptive study” New Delhi, 1903) to supply the hungry 18thC European market, which sought out this new cloth, and Palampore designs, for bed hangings, bedcovers and draperies.

Kalamkari was made exclusively with inexpensive and freely available local natural dyes. Backed by an international desire for sustainable textile practices, the All India Handicrafts Board set up the Kalamkari training and production centre at Srikalahasti in 1957, to protect this tradition and resist the modern chemical dyes; today it employs 150 craftsmen. The two main kalamkari centres on the Coromandel coast remain in the Srikalahasti and Masulipatnam localities–each carrying a certain style.

Masulipatnum designs are heavily influenced by typical Persian motifs of fauna and flora, figuring drawings of trees, flowers and intertwining leaves and are used for clothing and household textiles.

Sriklahasti artists design for clothing, but are also traditionally associated with the Hindu temple cloth panels, exposing religious themes, the stories and sacred texts of the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Bhagavata. A big story panel might be segmented into many smaller sections: the panel commences with the picture of an artist seeking blessing from Lord Ganesha, and each following section depicts a scene from the story with written Telugu passages below the image. The Srikalahastisvara temple (circa 1000 AD) rich in stone carvings and decorative motifs and a veritable source of inspiration for designers and painters, benefits from the local clement conditions–indeed clean flowing water from the Svarnamukhi river provide local dye stuffs and the right climatic conditions for the kalamkari process.

Particular features of Srikalahasti Kalamkari include:

* Elaborate decorations on jewellery / costumes etc.

* Use of beaded line and use of heart shaped designs in borders.

* Simplification of colours, shading is eliminated

* Rounded faces, long and big eyes.

* Red, yellow, blue, green and black are dominant.

The beautiful soft colours are derived from a few staple natural dyes: red, yellow, blue and black. Each kalamkari artist prepares his own dyes from tree bark, roots, flowers, fruits and seeds. Indian madder produces the red, yellow comes from the myrobalan flower, and blue from the indigo plant. The permanent black ink and dye that is used for outlining comes from the chemical reaction of IRON fillings with molasses/jaggery. As these colours are fixed through exposure to the sun and shade and soaking in water, workshops are always situated near a free flowing river (as in Sanganer and Bagru in Rajasthan, Faizabad, Palampur in the North and Srikalahasti on the south-east coast).

Whilst following a general design theme, the free hand nature of the kalamkari technique means that each finished piece is unique. It is a complex process that is generally passed down through families, involving many steps and requiring specific site conditions. Preparation, painting, mordanting, washing and drying as the colours are built up one by one means that, from beginning to end, each complete length of cloth takes several weeks.


The Kalam

The Kalam (qalam) is the ink pen used to draw outlines onto the cloth. It is made by securing a length of wool with cotton thread around a bamboo reed, which is filed to achieve a thin and sharp tip. The skin of the bamboo is retained on one of the sides, which gives the reed strength and a longer life.

As this pen is dipped into the dye solution, the woollen ball absorbs the dye by capillary action–the artist holds the loaded kalam in an upright position and gently presses the woolen ball as he works along the cloth. The dye passes through the bamboo point and marks the cloth. The tip of the bamboo pen has to be renewed whenever it becomes blunt. After each use, the kalam is washed with plenty of water, until when squeezed the woolen ball runs clear. Broad tipped kalams are used to draw thicker lines and for filling in large areas.


Preparing the cloth

1. The cotton greycloth is washed without detergent of any kind and beaten to remove all starch. It is then boiled in plain water to remove all other impurities.

2. The cloth is dyed using finely ground myrobalan nut powder (for its high tannin content) mixed in buffaloes’ milk. This treatment helps the fabric to absorb the required metallic mordant and to develop a permanent black colour from the ferrous mordant. The fat content from the milk prevents the dye spreading as it is printed. The result is a pale yellow cloth. Here is the recipe, for anyone who wants to try it:

* For ten metres of cotton calico, mix 150 gms of myrobalan (Termalia chebula Retz) into 2 litres of buffalo milk.

* Soak the cloth in the solution in a stainless steel, glass or enamel (non-reactive) bath for 5 minutes.

* Wring it very tightly and dry in the sunlight for 6 to 8 hours.

* Leave it at room temperature for one day.

3. The tannin coated cloth must be stored in a dry place, away from moisture and strong sunlight, or the surface quality will be reduced–meaning lines will spread as they are penned. Treated cloth will last up to 40 days before the tannin on the fabric becomes inert.

4. The cloth is paced onto a thickly padded bench just a bit wider than the width of the cloth.

5. The initial design is drawn with charcoal–usually made from burnt tamarind twigs, and then drawn over with the kalam. As soon as the iron solution comes into contact with the myrobalan, the line turns black…the artist must be careful not to spill a drop. The outlines are allowed to dry for about a minute, after which the excess dye is carefully removed by an absorbent (blotting) cloth.

* When the same black dye is used for block printing on myrobalan treated cloth, it is thickened by adding a glue–meypro gum or gum arabic.

* When a black outline over a white design is required, the cloth needs to be well washed, then boiled in clean water for about 2 minutes.

6. Each of the infill colours is added in turn with different widths of kalam brushes.



The cloth is soaked in sheep’s dung solution, squeezed a little and kept wet over night. The following day, the cloth is laid in direct sunlight on a moist riverbed, where it is kept constantly moistened. This process goes on for weeks, until the red and black design comes up clear and the ground white is bleached white.


An alum mordant is brushed onto selected motifs on the cloth to fix the red alizarin. It is left to dry until crystals appear, when the cloth is taken outside to dry, where it is left under the shade for 2 days.


The cloth is again soaked in buffalo’s milk, squeezed tightly and left to dry in the sunlight for a day, and for another day under shade. This is to prevent the colours from spreading–yellow blue and green.


Indigo is painted onto an area that needs to become blue [mordant?]


Indigo brushed onto yellow becomes green.


The cloth is finally washed in flowing river water and hung in the strong sunlight to dry.



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