Views Of A Flowing Canvas: How Srikalahasti Cradles Kalamkari


The art struggles against a problem of plenty owing to the presence of imitations and chemical colours, but artists and patrons ensure that its narratives continue to flourish.

By Vaijayanthi Chakravarthy

In art, imitation serves as disruption. It causes a silent change within a form and its narrative. Kalamkari has witnessed disruptions from imitations disguised in screen and block prints. The imitations have redrawn its journey. They have impacted its visual flow and narrative. At the same time, kalamkari has flourished within the evolving outlines, stretched on cloth, under purists, patrons, veterans and young experts of Srikalahasti, a small town 40 kms from Tirupati, on the banks of river Swarnamukhi.

Today, Kalamkari, an expensive art, needs patrons and connoisseurs. The art of hand-drawn and hand-filled paint on fabric was resurrected twice — first, through the uplifting revival under Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, during the 1950s, and later, when it broke the mould of being a wall art and found a canvas on sari and fabrics.

Today, it faces a problem of plenty. In kalamkari’s case, plenty is not really good for a survival story. There are trained artists involved in the craft in Srikalahasti. Business has been good; visibility as good, but the art stands threatened by the print version that has crept in from other places, including Pedana near Machilipatnam on Andhra Pradesh coast, famed for its wooden block printed organic kalamkari. Designs that emerge from Srikalahasti and Pedana were different and easily distinguishable. Block print and screen print arrived. The distinct identities disturbed, the style, in Srikalahasti, faces challenges owing to time, process, and cost involved in the making of pen kalamkari (popular name for the hand drawn version). Imitations have an advantage of pace and frequency in a market driven by quick results. A pen kalamkari has a detailed seven-stage process that could take up to 20 days for the completing of one sari by one artisan; block print can be done in a day and a screen print can churn out a dozen or more. How long will the boom last in these complicated dynamics of demand and supply?

In Srikalahasti, pen kalamkari was in practice in only one family during early 20th century. Doyens of kalamkari shared the knowledge with students. Lakshmi Amma, a well-known award winning veteran from a family of kalamkari artists attributes the craft, as it survives today, to artist Gurrappa Chetty’s family. A centre in her town trained aspiring artists, including her son-in-law, a national award winner, who died young, leaving the legacy to her. She picked up the threads after his death, won a state award, but soon got involved in the marketing of kalamkari. She says, “Kala padi poyindi, cheeralu vachina taravata malli business vachindi” (the art fell into bad times, but the business picked up after it came up in sari).” Kalamkari has evolved on the sari for 15 years. The quick acceptance of fakes could be a pointer to its complicated success story and popularity.

Lakshmi Amma cannot explain much beyond the processes of kalamkari. I ask her if she can take us to Gurrappa Chetty’s house. Luckily, she agrees and sends her daughter with us to meet the grand old man of kalamkari, Padmashri Jonnalagadda Gurrappa Chetty. Nearly 80, recovering from a recent heart surgery, Chetty talks about his art. An artist who knows the puranas, Chetty takes the art of kalamkari back in time, by 5000 years. He says, “Do you know of Arjuna’s chariot? Didn’t the chariot have a flag with Hanuman as the symbol? What was the flag made of? It was the beginning of kalamkari. The Indian calendar goes by the calculation of yugas, and by that calculation, it has been over 5000 years since the kaliyuga began. Mahabharata happened just before that.” Then, Chetty refers to Amarakosa, to authenticate the cloth and the painted flag, this time, the ketanamu (flag) of Manmada, which carried the symbol of fish. He shares Telugu names —  adhakamu — the block print version of Pedana and vratha pani, the hand drawn version of Kalahasti. Srikalahasti, (not Kalahasti, Chetty insists) even today, has a street, Vratha Pani Veedhi — perhaps, a testimony to the times a street where kalamkari artists lived, flourished.

Today, there are many who know the art and practise it, as owners of small units that mass produce wall hangings, saris, stoles, fabrics; some -daily wage earners pursuing kalamkari for monthly salaries, and a handful go for national exhibitions as national or state award winners. Their success has roots in the small start made by Jonnalagadda Lakshmanayya Chetty, in 1957, at a training centre. He taught five students and his son. With the association of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and national efforts to revive the art, the training centre continued to propagate kalamkari for decades. It shut down, as it was felt that many have been trained, and the art form would survive through them. Carrying the legacy of grandfather Lakshmanayya and Gurrappa Chetty is Niranjan Jonnalagadda, best-known practitioner today, who runs the finest kalamkari units in Srikalahasti. Lakshmi’s grandson has joined the family business, returning to practice after earning a degree in business administration from Tirupati.

The waters of Swarnamukhi and Krishna, in Pedana, play an important role in the process of kalamkari. The fabric needs to be washed many times in running water. Keeping the organic painting and printing on fabric is difficult without the water source. Organic is not easy to deal with. Ingredients have to come from an ayurveda product dealer in Chennai. The starting point for the fabric is a dunking in milk and karakka pindi (myrobalan). Two different pens or kalams made of bamboo sticks are used, one for making the initial sketch and the other, attached with a small bundle of cloth, for filling in the paints.

“There is science in this,” says Chetty. According to him, the butter in milk prevents colour from smudging when drawn on the cloth. Black is derived from a chemical reaction. Black used for drawing the initial sketch comes from charcoal made of tamarind stems, and black for highlighting and filling, from a solution made of iron scrap and jaggery. The dye reacts with myrobalan in the fabric, giving black the pitch it needs. The colour scheme is VIBGYOR. Blue from indigo; yellow from pomegranate peels to myrobalan flowers, colours used are all natural. Now, demand for brighter colours has led units and artists at Srikalahasti to chemical colours. Some add a dash of chemical colour to natural for a particular orange.

Srikalahsti and Pedana kalamkaris have obtained Geographical Indicator (GI) tag. Both struggle against the presence and use of chemical colours. Threatened by the copy of hand-drawn designs on block prints from Pedana, Srikalahasti kalamkari workers are looking at a legal option to save their craft.

Pedana’s block printing came up as a means to ramp up production, to meet the demand of overseas buyers, like Portugese and Dutch, who traded in Indian textiles from Coromandel Coast. Rulers of Golconda patronised the Pedana craft. Intricate floral motifs are attributed to Persian influence. Probably, it was the period when the craft of Pedana and Srikalahasti diverged — latter patronised by the Vijayanagar. Later, under the Nayaka rulers, it continued to be a temple art. The visual proximity of Srikalahasti designs and Nayaka murals can be seen at Lepakshi. Number of temples around Srikalahasti provided a market for kalamkari artists. Srikalahasti kalamkari used in temples has equivalence in Pichhwai of Nathdwara and Mata Ni Pachedi of Gujarat. Pedana’s block print continued using floral designs and Srikalahasti continued to paint images of Gods and Goddesses, scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Large works on cloth continue to showcase episodes from Ramayana or Mahabharata. After kalamkari moved from being a temple art to adorning fabrics of ordinary mortals, artists like Chetty used their imagination to draw objects from outside the puranas.

Lakshmi Amma worries about the presence duplicates and fakes; Chetty, on the other hand, about the issue of understanding and appreciation of the art. A Victoria and Albert Museum may exhibit a grand kalamkari work by Chetty’s father or grandfather, but his own people are not aware of the art.

Chetty’s desire to connect with people is enormous. He says, “I lived all my school and college years less than 100 kms from Srikalahasti without hearing a word about kalamkari.” Even today, in Srikalahasti, the best way to buy a piece of kalamkari is to go to the house/unit of one of the producers. It is a temple town with lakhs of pilgrims visiting, but there aren’t showrooms around. Chetty wants to take kalamkari to school children in his district and state. He wants to talk to them and show them what kalamkari is and about.

During the time of our visit, the small room at Lakshmi Amma’s place cradled a 100 meter cloth, on it, a portrayal of Mahabharata in progress. The first motif for a canvas is always the image of Ganesha, the lord of great and auspicious beginnings. We wish Lakshmi Amma, Padmashri Jonnalagadda Gurrappa Chetty, and other artists of Srikalahasti, more beginnings in their commitment to kalamkari and its immortal motifs.


Motifs and miles: An artist at work at one of the units.


Pictures by Vaijayanthi Chakravarthy