Artisanal hand-painted textiles from India
A method of printing and decorating fabric, the craft of kalamkari has been passed down within artisan families in India for at least 3,000 years. Kalamkari fabrics are decorated using vegetable dyes, block printing, and a pen; the printing is typically done on plain-woven, pure cotton cloth. Because they are entirely made by hand, each kalamkari garment is beautifully unique.
The word kalamkari comes from the Hindi/Urdu: kalam, meaning pen, and kari, work or art; people who do this finely wrought penwork are known as kalamkars. The method was most likely passed on to Indian craftsmen by Persian traders sometime around the 10th century. The elegant tracings and delicate designs require that kalamkars attain a high level of skill before they can make an entire piece of kalamkari fabric by themselves. Families typically work together, with the experienced elders training the younger members. Made from a bamboo or date palm branch, the pen used for this process is pointed at one end with a bundle of fine hairs or cotton to brush on the color. Most kalamkari designs combine freehand brushwork with block printing using hand-carved wooden pattern blocks.
The beautiful colors traditionally associated with kalamkari cloth are the result of natural dyes. Each kalamkar concocts their own vegetable dyes from native tree barks, flowers, fruits, and roots. Yellow, for instance, is made from a paste of pomegranate seeds. The fabric used for kalamkari undergoes a laborious process of resist dyeing. The cloth is block printed, painted by hand, and then must be treated again after the painting is complete. There are many steps involved in developing the richness of the natural dyes; typically a kalamkar will wash and dry the cloth three to five times to achieve the desired result. They also use a mordant solution of natural minerals – such as iron or alum – to fix the dye onto the material.
Traditional kalamkari designs have many influences – trees, flowers, and leaf designs originally came from Persia. Hindu mythology also influenced the designs, as temples commissioned cloths with religious themes and depictions of stories from sacred texts to be used as wall hangings. Demand for these handmade fabrics grew with the arrival of Dutch traders, who exported the cloth for bed covers and draperies. During British rule, kalamkari was even used to make portraits of English military and government figures.