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Home >> Indian Painting Styles >> Kalamkari


Kalamkari is a traditional Indian craft predominantly related to cotton fabric. In this craft, fabric is patterned through the medium of dye rather than loom. Ochre is one of the few colors which cotton would take on easily But for other colors the fabric is to be initially treated with mordant that facilitated the absorption of the desired hue. Mordant can be easily applied either with block or with a brush or pen like instrument on a pre woven fabric.

The use of the kalam (pen) on the cloth lent the term kalamkari to this art form.This art was used for decorative or functional hangings in domestic and monumental structures as wrapping and covering material, or in costume.

There are five key areas in Krishna district in South India where the craft is practiced however there are several departures from the earlier practices. Mordant is uniformly printed with the block. Indigo dying has been virtually relinquished and the application of wax resist by kalam is also absent from the procedure. Mordant for outlining in black remains the same.

Method of Kalamkari

Block Making: Teak is used for the engraving of blocks. Blocks are cut along the breadth of the wood and the minimum width is 6-cm. The wood selected is devoid of holes and cracks. The selected block is evened with a planer and sandpapered. It is then waxed to ensure absolute smoothness. The design to be carved is outlined on a paper sheet, which is stretched out evenly on the wood and gently tacked into place along the edges. A metal instrument shaped like a pencil with sharp pointed edge is lightly hammered along the lines of pattern. This causes the transfer of the outline onto the surface of the wood in the form of perforated incisions. After that paper is removed and chalk powder is rubbed on the surface which helps the pattern to come into sharper focus.

Kalam: A thick bamboo stick about 18 cm in length and about 6 mm in width is made. At one end at the distance of about 3 cm from the point of termination a thick coil of goats hair felt is coiled around and tied into position.

Yellow Dye: The dried flowers called Aldekai are pounded with a wooden rod. Water is added to the powdered flowers and the mixture is boiled for 2-3 hours. After it is cooled it is filtered and kept ready.

Myrobalam: Myrobalam fruit is soaked for about an hour in a fresh buffalo milk. After the fruit is softened it is pounded with a wooden rod. After mashing the solution is further diluted with cold water and is filtered through fine fabric.

Iron & Alum Mordants: Paddy husk and iron stripes are piled in alternative layers and set aflame with charcoal and cow dung cakes an allowed to shoulder for a considerable time. After that the strips are retrieved, washed and scrubbed with stone to remove the rust. The cleaned strips are placed in barrel shaped brass pot. A solution of jaggery and salt water is poured on the iron fillings and then the pot is kept aside for fermentation. The presence of jaggery helps in the process of dissolving iron pieces.

Dry alum crystals are pounded to powder and water is added in the proportion of 4 litres of water to 3 ½ kg of alum. The mixture is boiled till it is reduced to half. The clarity in the shade of red depends on the purity of alum used. Admixture of iron in any form leads to the darkening of color and it is for this reason that iron implements and utensils are avoided.

Bleaching and Washing: This is the first step in the actual dying operations. The unbleached material is soaked in a solution of cow dung and water for 5-10 minutes and dried in the sun. Te process is repeated three times. The cow dung being a natural product does not weaken the fabric and repeated procedure leads to whitening of the cloth without any side effects. The fabric is then washed in clean water and dried in sun.

Application of Myrobalam

The filtered abstract of myrobalam fruit is diluted by the addition of about seven to eight buckets of water. The material is dipped into this solution, removed immediately, squeezed out and dried in the sun. The tannin in the myrobalam plays a special role, on reaction with iron salt a black color is produced. When the tannin reacts with alum it improves the fastness of the red dye. It also helps the cotton fiber to absorb the iron and alum salts more evenly.

Printing of Iron and Alum Mordants
The printing is done on a long wooden table at an elevation of about one foot from ground. The surface of the table is covered with gunny cloth over which a damp cloth is spread. The fabric to be printed is stretched out on the table. Mordant is placed in the printing pad. The basic structure for this is a rectangular tray made of deodar or teak wood. A lose bamboo frame is made which fits breadth wise into the bottom of the tray.

The printer sits cross-legged at the table with the pad within easy reach. Mordant is poured from time to time onto the pad from a brass lota ( mug). The bamboo separators act as the base from which the sponge layer absorbs mordant in limited quantities throughout the printing operation. The woolen cloth on top acts as a kind of blotter so that only the surface residue from the sponge layer permeates through to establish contact with the block. After wetting the surface of the block with the mordant solution, the printer presses it down on to the fabric. The block is hammered down after each impression with a round edged hammer mostly to soften the impact the surface of the hammer is covered with cloth padding. Block printing is an art that requires precision and skill to achieve necessary fineness.

The printing of the iron mordant precedes that of alum. The prepared substances are thickened with gum to facilitate printing.

When the iron mordant impression is made on the myrobalam treated cloth, the tannin in myrobalam reacts to the iron acetate leading to the formation of black color.

As alum solution is colorless, a fugitive color is added so that the outlines may be visible while printing. In past sappan wood was used, today vermilion is utilized. After mordant printing the cloth is kept for two or three days to ensure thorough drying.

Degumming and Washing
After mordants have dried, degumming and washing is takes place. The degumming has to so effected that there is no smudging of the outline. The cloth is taken to the river and left in water for about two to three hours. Utmost care is taken to ensure that the cloth is evenly stretched out to ensure all unwanted mordant is removed.

The cloth is also beaten on the stones by the riverbed to remove the remaining impurities and later the fabric is dried in the sun.

Boiling for Alizarin
Alizarin is dissolved in cold water and later the alizarin solution is added to the boiling water. After that the mordant fabric is completely submerged in the pot and allowed to boil for an hour.

The Jagakku leaves are added to the solution that facilitates the dying process. The cloth is taken out after the red color is developed. It is dried in the sun.

If bleached background is desired then the cow dung process is repeated.

Starching and Application of Yellow Dye

The cloth is kept in the prepared starch and then squeezed out and dried in the sun.

Now it is a stage to use pen. The prepared myrobalam is kept in lota and the kalam is dipped into the solution. The kalam is held at vertical angle to the fabric. The coiled felt is held between forefinger and the thumb. An even pressure is applied to enable the dye trickle down the base on to the cloth. In case any excess color is found it is blotted off with the felt portion of the pen.

Final Processing: Alum crystals are pounded, cool water is added and stirred well and the fabric is submerged in this solution. The excess yellow color runs off and all colors are fixed.

Finally, the cloth is washed with the soap and dried in the sun.

The Kalamkari art is extensively practiced in South India for Iranian Market. The Kalamkari practiced in Masaulipatnam has an intricacy with which the inner surface of each motif is further ornamented in delicate black tracery. Here, it is extensively used in prayer mats, wall hangings, and towels. The designs are floral, geometrical and figurative. The scenes from mythological stories are also depicted in the designs.

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