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Penning the waves of Machilipatnam Kalamkari
The breathtakingly simple yet intricately designed motifs of nature – birds, trees, art, and flowers – imprinted on fabrics, sarees and dresses that can make you feel one with nature, is the vibe of Kalamkari.
The breathtakingly simple yet intricately designed motifs of nature – birds, trees, art, and flowers – imprinted on fabrics, sarees and dresses that can make you feel one with nature, is the vibe of Kalamkari. Simply translated as 'drawing with a pen', the art of Kalamkari transcends its meaning. To those eyes, that naturally gravitate towards the exquisitely soothing block prints of Kalamkari, welcome to the world of Machilipatnam's Kalamkari block printing, also known as Pedana Kalamkari or Adakkam ('to print' in Telugu).
Pedana, a small town of Machilipatnam in Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh, has been the popular hub for this craft style. A town that was once a part of the Silk Route, Machilipatnam's origins go as far back as the 3rd century BCE. Perched on the Coromandel coast, where the Krishna river greets the Bay of Bengal, Machilipatnam is also known to be one of the earliest and busiest ports of India, that thrived on sea trade. Perhaps this may explain the textiles' early success. Machilipatnam Kalamkari gained great popularity when the Mughals ruled, during which time this style of art was practised by the Golconda Sultanate - however, the art traces its origins to a time much earlier than the 16th century. In the year 2008, it also received the GI tag under the handicrafts section.
Originally synonymous with dye-painting style, and primarily known as the art form used to tell religious stories, Kalamkari finds its foremost seed in Srikalahasti of the Chittoor district. But, Machilipatnam and Srikalahasti have carved out their own personalities owing to their methods employed - the former uses block-printing and the latter uses a bamboo pen.
Block-printing as a style is not exclusive to Kalamkari, in that there are a variety of its traditions native to India (such as Sanganeri, Ajrakh, Bagru, Dabu etc), however, Kalamkari developed a niche for itself with its Indo-Persian character vibrant with vegetable dyes. The quintessential leaves, flowers and creepers of the Persian design school with a blend of Indian motifs, give Kalamkari a unique personality that exudes an x-factor. A spark that lets it stand out from a mile.
Akin to any art of handmaking products, especially in the realm of crafts, the making of Machilipatnam Kalamkari also warrants several hours of workmanship and dedication – in order to achieve precision. To those that may be quick to assume that block-printing is a fairly easy process, now is the time to bust that myth. Because it takes a multi-fold step-by-step process involving some of the most skilled artisans (assigned at each step). The foremost step is the readying of the wooden blocks - which are typically made to order according to the design provided and finalised for the fabric. These designs are first drawn on paper and are then copied onto a wooden block. But that is not the end of it. To be able to nail the design on fabric, it takes the creation of at least a couple of blocks – one to detail the outline, and the other to fill the motifs with befitting colours. Additionally, the dyes are prepared on the one hand, and the cloth is treated and washed before its ready for the block-printing, post which it is hung for drying.
One may wonder why it is still called Kalamkari despite the use of blocks, it is perhaps because the artisans use a pen to fine-tune the details after the block printing.
As seemingly simple as it may have sounded, it takes the efforts of at least 8 craftspeople to bring one design to life. And given the fact that it is such a complex process even for the simplest of designs, one can imagine how much more layered and proportionally expensive it can get with bigger designs.
Machilipatnam Kalamkari was so coveted at one point that even the royal families and the elites would wear it. For history enthusiasts, a few of those pieces can still be found to be preserved in museums - such is its glory! It is also exported as chintz fabric to many countries where this print is raved about. Thankfully, the revival of Kalamkari, the branching of it into a variety of products and the broadening of its scope of base fabrics into muslin and heavy fabrics for furnishings - reassures the faith in the continuance of its legacy.
Now is your time to sport the colours of mother earth, in shades of red, blue, green, yellow and black. For, just like a piece of Machilipatnam Kalamkari – you are beautiful, real and perfectly imperfect. So, when are you owning your next block-printed piece of Kalamkari beauty?
(The writer is a handloom and handicraft enthusiast. She is also a member of the crafts council. Instagram handle: Rajeswariramachander)