Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

Kalamkari Painting: Scroll Narratives and Block-Prints

Kalamkari art


To see how popular Kalamkari is, take a stroll around any crowded street in Andhra Pradesh or present-day Telangana. Numerous shops in a row exhibit intricately detailed fabrics, painted with small motifs and lined borders. You will also find Kalamkari motifs in paintings or wall hangings in many South Indian homes.

Once you have seen it enough, you will recognize that Kalamkari is the traditional art of Andhra Pradesh. With a long history stretching back 3000 years, it presents the fluidity and continuity of Indian culture and tradition. Castes such as Reddy, Padmasali, Chakali, Mala, Madiga, Devanga, and Balija use sharp-tipped bamboo sticks to create intricate Kalamkari designs. Along with motifs related to mythology and nature, Kalamkars also draw dynamic lines to evoke emotions. To truly appreciate this art, one must be familiar with its styles and the stories the paintings are meant to narrate.

Origins of Kalamkari Art

The term ‘Kalamkari’ originates from ‘Kalam,’ which means pen in Persian, and ‘kari,’ which stands for craft in Urdu. The term gained prominence with an alliance between Persian and Indian traders in the 17th century. Historically produced in the small towns of Srikalahasti and later Machilipatnam, Kalamkari was initially a family affair where artists illustrated temple rituals on cloth.

There are two main styles of Kalamkari: Srikalahasti and Machilipatnam. Since the Srikalahasti style developed around temples, it depicts Hindu deities like Brahma, Saraswati, Ganesh, Durga, Shiva, and Parvati. Kalamkari designs and motifs found on the costumes and draperies of Ajanta and Ellora frescoes and Kalpasutra paintings of Jains confirm the ancient origins of the art.

Indo-Persian Kalamkari Quilt (Image Source- Chiswick Auctions)

The origin of the Machilipatnam style lies in the patronage of the Mughals and Golconda Sultanate. That’s why it includes Persian motifs like intricate leaf patterns, flowers, creepers, and birds like parrots and peacocks. It was the Golconda sultans who first coined the term ‘Kalamkar’ for craftsmen working with pens.

Evolution of Kalamkari Art

It’s fascinating to observe the transition from the fully hand-painted temple Kalamkari tradition to the block-printed style. With the presence of the Sultanate and Mughals in the Deccan, several craft centers emerged. This led to a shift from Kalamkari’s village-centric identity to meet the refined tastes of urban dwellers.

In Islamic tradition, painting realistic portraits of human beings is considered blasphemous, which explains the rise in demand for floral and leaf motifs. Even Hindu buyers found it disrespectful to have deities drawn on their clothing and thus preferred block-printed motifs, while Hindu temples continued with the Srikalahasti style.

Narration in Srikalahasti Kalamkari Scrolls

In ancient times, a group of singers, musicians, and painters known as Chitrakathi moved from one village to another, narrating stories from Hindu mythology. Scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, and other mythological classics were produced on scrolls, temple backdrops, wall hangings, chariot banners, etc. Therefore, the unique feature of Srikalahasti Kalamkari was the stories it narrated.

Continuous Narrative in Kalamkari Scrolls (Source-Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results)

In this continuous method of narration, Kalamkari scrolls depict separate events taking place over different periods of time. The division into frames enables the narrative to progress, providing a sequence and consequence where events are organized and connected in a meaningful way for a particular audience. These scrolls also include captions that act as didactic text to provide context to the background story.

Mono-scenic scroll from Mahabharata (Image Source-Art Lounge)

Symbolic Motifs of Machilipatnam style

Motifs in the Machilipatnam style always have a meaning behind them. To understand why they are so prevalent in traditional art, you must know what they signify. The ‘Tree of Life,’ for instance, has multiple branches that convey the unity of all life on Earth, as supported by science, religion, philosophy, and mythology. A tree is a home to many species and brings a sense of liveliness to the viewer.

Tree of Life (Source- Fine Art America)    

Creeping vine is often used to fill the empty area with free flow designs that are harmonious and rhythmic. Creepers have flowers, leaves, birds, and fruits that make a heavy pattern. Lotus has a huge relevance for Hindu religion. Goddess Lakshmi holds a lotus in her hand. It is offered to Gods because it symbolises peace, security, harmony, and essential womanhood.

Paisley Motif (Source- Shopolics)

Paisley is a droplet-shaped motif that also resembles mango. It is called ‘carrey’ in Pakistan and ‘ambi’ in Punjab which also means mango. Mango fruit has dietary and cultural importance in India. 

Techniques of Making Kalamkari 

The traditional method of preparing the cloth is quite involved. The cloth undergoes rigorous washing in a solution made of buffalo milk and cow dung. Then a solution called a mordant is used to enhance the final product’s luster. Indigo and madder produce the color blue, Pobbaku and Chevalikodi give red, and pomegranate rind is simmered to make yellow. To create the color black, iron pieces are soaked in jaggery or coconut water. Resists made of wax, gum, or mud prevent the color from spreading to other parts of the cloth. Today, chemicals have replaced natural dyes, and charcoal pencils are used instead of thick bamboo sticks. Block printing has also gained momentum.

Also Read: Kalamkari – Traditional Handpainted Textile

Kalamkari as Textile Art and more  

After a significant dip in Kalamkari production in the 20th century, post-independence India swiftly revived the art and adapted it to contemporary tastes. Designs are now classified as figurative, floral, animal, and geometric, and have evolved with time and the creativity of modern-day artists.

21st Century Kalamkari Saree (Image Source- The Chitrolekha Journal on Art and Design)

The theme of Radha-Krishna is painted on sarees and dupattas. Artists have also combined Kalamkari with zari, prints, and threadwork from other parts of the country. Not only that, Kalamkari designs have inspired artists to draw them on plates, ceramic cups, umbrellas, bags, and other objects of utility. 

In a Nutshell 

With such a long history and immense influence on Indian culture, Kalamkari ranks among the most vibrant traditional art forms of India. It has many stories to tell and continues to awe many more people with its beauty. It can adapt with time and transform itself to meet the demands of both the creator and the viewer.

Download the Rooftop App from GooglePlay or AppStore and enroll in our maestro courses!
Discover us on Instagram @rooftop_app for all things on traditional Indian art.

Related Posts