Kalamkari art displays a long trail of developments from cave paintings to temples and then to rich textiles. Commercializing this art not only helped preserve the essence of this 3000-year-old textile painting & printing but also provided a livelihood for the artists practising this art for generations. The artisans’ skills and indigenous cotton produce were exemplary and hence this beautiful tapestry was termed “Shabnam” the morning dew.

Kalamkari art
Simhamukha Ganpati
Image Source : Kalamkari & Traditional Design Heritage of India

The intricate pen work; Kalamkari was a secular art in spite of being under Muslim rule. The Mughals who patronized this art called the artists as “Qualamkars” and this popularised the term “Kalamkari”. These highly religious and spiritual paintings describe folk tales and mythology either in a single episode or in an entire epic. What made these paintings unique are the different styles, depending on the popular production centres. The painting speaks volumes about the evolution and beliefs of the people.

Let us understand the different depictions through themes in Kalamkari painting

The Puranas

The Ramayana is one of the most frequently used subjects in Kalamkari textile. Mostly the temple hangings adorned the epics which often changed as per the artist’s narration. Each artist had their own perspective which is reflected in the art. In contrast to this, the Mahabharata are a rare sighting and only a few key episodes are illustrated. The depictions of the epics also varied with styles originating from popular production centres of the textiles, for example, the Srikalahasti, Machilipatnam & Madurai.

Temples

Temples in Kalamkari art
Sri Subrahmanya Temple
Image Source : Kalamkari Temple Hangings

The art forms and motifs illustrated in Indian paintings are often deeply rooted in religion and so Kalamkari art form. Interestingly, there was a magico-artistic basis for the early expression of painting like the cave painting. While not decorative, these paintings were created with the belief that the creator would be bestowed with the power to overcome natural calamities. The ethos of these paintings was to depict the pious bond between man and the supreme, unseen powers. Moreover, this theory gave rise to religions and established temples. Kalamkari tapestries based on temples often were utilised by bards and showmen to showcase the Hindu culture amongst the masses.

Kalamkari: Telugu Epics

Kalamkari Art
Ganga Duppati; Inspired by Katamaraju Katha
Image Source: Kalamkari Temple Hangings

Kalamkari prospered in the laps of Andhra Pradesh therefore the narratives of the paintings were predominantly based on the Telugu epics. One such epic was the Katamaraju Katha, a generous king known to be a reincarnation of Lord Krishna from the most important herding community, Gollas or Yadavas, of Andhra and Telangana. This ancestral narrative of the community illustrates the heroic acts of the king. One such incident paints the picture of a war that took place between Katamaraju and Nalla Siddi, King of Nellore, Andhra Pradesh over the rights of grazing herds of cattle in fertile meadows. This valorous folklore is not only enacted but also sung and known to be the longest cycle of ballads in Andhra Tradition. The paintings were used as hangings in the performance of the epic.

Signs Of Religion In Kalamkari

Kalamkari art
The Life of Christ
Image Source : Kalamkari Temple Hangings

The Kalamkari paintings also derived their themes from religions. As mentioned through early research, the art form and Buddhism both prospered on the land of the Krishna river. There are tracings of the Buddhist literature and architectural beauty in the paintings. Not only Buddhism but also Jainism and Christian subjects are noticed. As mentioned in Kalamkari Temple Hangings, master dyer Jonnagaladda Gurappa Chetty has created a vibrant work – ” Life of Christ”. The artwork is regarded as a remarkable example of reviving the Srikalahasti Kalamkari craft.

Denoted by various names by the countries like, pintado by Portuguese, sitz by Dutch, chintz by British and finally, the Kalamkari, is a blend of Mughal and Persian influence, different styles and narrations. This ancient art has adapted well to the present era through fashion and furnishing. The motifs of temples, folk tales and epics on the textile make the art stand out amongst the others.