A Dyeing Art

An edited version of this article appeared in Culturama magazine – June 2016. You can see the article on Page 50 at this link: https://issuu.com/globaladjustments/docs/culturama_june_2016_web

All pictures courtesy Niranjan Jonnalagadda – do not reprint or re-use without prior permission.

Type the word ‘Srikalahasti’ in an Internet search engine, and popular results that pop up are for the Shiva temple located in this town, which is regarded as one of the most holy shrines in India. People come to this temple, primarily, to perform a special puja or ritual to neutralise the negative effects of Rahu and Ketu in a person’s life. (Rahu and Ketu are two malevolent deities in the Hindu astrological tradition of navagraha or nine planets; they are said to be powerful enough to mitigate all forms of prosperity).

A lesser-known fact is that this town, located in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, is that it is a centre for an ancient art form known as kalamkari. Originally known as vrathapani, the art form was given this, more popular name by the Muslim rulers of the Coromandel and Golconda provinces, who bestowed the terms ‘kalamkar’ on those practising the art, and ‘kalamkari’ on the goods that were produced. The term is derived from two Persian words – kalam (pen) and kari (craft) – and refers to the art of decorating pieces of cloth by drawing and colouring with a pen.

It is in Srikalahasti that I meet Niranjan Jonnalagada, who is regarded as one of India’s best kalamkari artists. He is a fifth generation artist in this tradition. His grandfather, Lakshmaiah’s paintings of scenes from the epic Ramayana and from stories of Lord Krishna’s life are exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Niranjan’s grandfather and father (Gurappa Chetty), played a key role in reviving this art in the 1950s, when it was near extinct.

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Of Art and History

The origins of kalamkari are said to date as far back as 3000 BC. Some historic sources say that samples of this fabric were found in the excavated sites of Mohenjo Daro. The art form flourished under the Vijayanagar kings (1336 to 1646) and Golconda Sultanate (1512 to 1687). Temples were primary patrons, and, hence, the artists were strongly influenced by religious themes. Many of their paintings depicted sequences from epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata or themes from scriptures such as the Puranas. The pieces were used as backdrops or wall hangings in the temples, or draped on rathas or temple chariots.


In the 17th century (or even earlier), the artists’ works were highly sought after in other parts of the world as well. Indian cloth was valued for its high quality, and Indian craftsmen were regarded as being particularly skilled in creating dyes from vegetables and minerals and ‘fixing’ them on to the cloth so that the colours did not fade.

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In the later half of the 17th century, the British East India Company established a roaring trade in these fabrics, and special orders were placed from the European market to produce them as dress materials and furnishing. During this time, European designs such as the Tudor rose and Persian symbols such as the ‘tree of life’ found their way into the craftsmen’s repertoire of designs, and into the kalamkari tradition.

Winds of Change

Despite its rich tradition, kalamkari suffered a decline in the early 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution resulted in boycott against fabrics imported from India to Britain. By this time, due to colonial rule, local rulers had been ousted and patronage for the arts was extremely limited. With their livelihood in question, many artists branched out into other fields.

“My grandfather and father became schoolteachers,” says Niranjan. “In the 1940s, my grandfather, Lakshmaiah, was only one of two traditional kalamkari artists in Srikalahasti. Despite being a schoolteacher, he continued to practise kalamkari as a hobby.”

In the mid-1950s, Lakshmaiah met Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, a former member of the Indian Independence Movement, who was working to revive indigenous arts and crafts. Kamala Devi was concerned that the introduction of Western-style factory based mass production – seen as a necessity for economic development – could stunt the growth of traditional artists and artisans. Thus, she set up a series of museums and institutions to archive and encourage Indian crafts and arts – including the Theatre Crafts Museum, Central Cottage Industries Emporia, All India Handicrafts Board and The Crafts Council of India.

“Kamaladevi came to Srikalahasti and met my grandfather. She asked him to take up training, so he selected six people to train – three from his family and three from other communities. The six of them trained others, and the art was revived in Srikalahasti,” says Niranjan. Lakshmaiah was also the first to teach women this art. He established a training centre and instituted a two-year course in 1957. Gurappa Chetty followed in his father’s footsteps and began to teach students in Srikalahasti, and at Sophia College in Mumbai.3 Niranjan, in turn, learnt the art from his father (Gurappa Chetty).

Niranjan lives in Srikalahasti, where he runs the Kalamkari Research and Training Centre. Like his father, he teaches students at his hometown and gives lecture-demonstrations in other parts of the country as well. Paintings, bespoke designs on saris and other wearable fabrics are part of his repertoire, and his designs are bought in India and overseas as well.

Teaching remains his primary calling – and he teaches students in Srikalahasti and inother cities. He has also travelled to several countries – including the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Switzerland, Sri Lanka and the United States – to give lecture-demonstrations. “When we do live demonstrations in other countries, people there are very interested, primarily because it is all hand-painted and hand-made – even the dyes,” he adds.

Crafted by Hand

The kalamkari process has not changed much over the centuries – it involves as many as 17 steps, all of which are done by hand. The cloth is first prepared by soaking it in a myrobalan (a fruit) and milk solution and then washed in running water. Then, the outline of the images are drawn are with a ‘pen’ – a sharpened bamboo or date palm stick with a bundle of hair or a small piece cut from a gunnysack, which is tied just above the pointed end with cotton thread. The end is dipped in dye and then used like a stylus to draw freehand on the fabric.

17 th Century kalamkari Manchester Musium 13

The fabric is treated and then the colours are filled in with the pen – but only one colour at a time. Each time a colour has been filled in, the cloth is treated with alum solution to ‘fix’ the colour. A final treatment is done once the design is complete. Due to the use of milk and natural dyes, kalamkari fabrics have a pungent smell, which fades away with time.

Opportunities and Threats

Niranjan says that kalamkari became famous in the 1960s, then suffered a decline in the 1980s, and has seen renewed interest in recent years. The surge in interest could be due to widespread initiatives by the government-run bodies such as Dastkar and Crafts Council of India to promote indigenous arts and crafts. The fact that weavers and artisans now travel to major metros and cities across the country has also helped to reduce the gap between the artist and consumer. E-commerce, too, has played its part in sparking interest and enabling wider reach. Thanks to these changes, kalamkari saris, dupattas, stoles and furnishing are now in great demand in India and abroad.

However, this surge in demand has also led to the rise of spurious lookalikes. If an artist were to follow the traditional method, it might take up to a month to complete an intricate design on a sari (which includes the two borders of the six-yard drape and the large panel on the free end or pallu). Add more colours or intricacies to the design, and the timeline is increased by a few more days. It is a labour-intensive process and involves the effort of two or three people at each stage – and, thus, is much more expensive when compared to printed fabrics.

To beat the high prices and time-consuming process, many businessmen/women skip the traditional process and replicate hand-drawn kalamkari motifs and designs through screen-printing. This reduces the price to a tenth of what you would pay for an authentic hand-drawn piece, and enables production at a much faster rate.

So, how does one make out the difference between the original work and a printed lookalike? Niranjan points out that hand-drawn motifs and designs cannot be identical across the work. If it is, it has been printed for sure.

He lists other concerns as well – the use of chemical dyes, for one. “Traditionally, only four primary colours are used in kalamkari – black, red (maroon), yellow (mustard) and blue (indigo). Green is (sometimes) derived from these. Now, we see turquoise, orange and purple in kalamari – definitely chemical colours. Also, the colours used by some people are much brighter – in contrast to the original process, which gives very subtle results,” says Niranajan. The process of making natural dyes is a priceless technique in its own right, and to lose the knowledge (which is typically passed on from master to student) due to the onslaught of chemical replacements is sad indeed.

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Add to it the fact that even simple designs are immediately scooped up by willing customers – which leaves ‘artists’ with little need to actually learn the techniques and designs properly. “Once kalamkari became famous, middlemen who don’t know anything about it are taking it up,” Niranjan says.

All of these factors are threatening the continued survival and growth of the original art form. There is little that institutions can do to protect this rich tradition from such threats. “Its up to the customers to realise the value of this art and support it, and spread the word about it,” Niranajan says.

I mention something that struck me as being extremely strange about the town – most people on the streets had no idea of what I was referring to when I mentioned the word ‘kalamkari’. Why did these people have no idea of the town’s rich tradition? “There are only two or three families who continue to do this work. Others living here and outside are all doing screen-printing. So, it is not seen as something very big or famous here. We have to educate them,” Niranjan explains

However, he says, it is not time to write an obituary just yet. There are people who still love and respect the art – and remain true to its legacy. His own family is an example. “Both my daughters are following in this tradition,” he says proudly. “And they train people to do kalamkari.” Hopefully, he says, more people will be trained in the authentic art form and keep the links alive.

And, some day, I hope, the town will be just as famous for its art as it is for its temple.

(ADDED INFO) Chock-a-Block 

There are two distinctive styles of kalamkari, both known by the names of the townswhere they originated. The Srikalahasti or ‘pen’ style is one; the other, known as the Machilipatnam style, follows a process whereby the main design is block-printed on cloth, with the finer details drawn in with a pen. The kalamkari designs developed in this coastal town (also located in Andhra Pradesh) were influenced largely by European and Persian elements, as the fabrics produced here in the 17th century was primarily for export.

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Both kalamkari forms have been awarded the Geographical Indication or GI tag by the Indian government (an indication that identifies goods as produced from a particular area, which have a special quality attributable to its geographical origin).



Short Story – Loss (Unpublished)

I wrote this story some time back. This work of fiction is not based on my own or any one else’s experiences; the core of the story was gleaned from several different sources, and it took a while before I put it together. Not everyone gets justice, and not everyone overcomes hurdles to write a success story – nonetheless, each and every story has its place in our collective consciousness.

The first thing she noticed when she walked through the gates was the missing tree. More like noticed the stump with ragged edges that marked the space where the tree had once stood. It had been big, with branches that spread out in a wide expanse, and broad, smooth leaves that looked like little green plates. She used to gaze at the tree from the kitchen window, wondering what life was like for the crow that had built a nest there. Where was the crow now?

The next thing she saw was the neighbour staring at her with an odd mix of expressions – curiosity, contempt, pity – almost as if each feeling was taking turns to appear on her face, then hiding itself upon being spotted. She stared back blankly, at which the neighbour turned away. She walked up the two steps that led to the house, and went into the hall. She was home. Or maybe, ‘home’ was where she thought she was heading to when she boarded the plane that morning.

The immigration officer who stamped her passport looked pointedly at the purple patch above her left eye, and at the knitted scar near her temple. But – thankfully – didn’t ask any questions. He was a young boy. She sensed pity, maybe fear, in his glance. 

She nodded off to sleep soon after she boarded the plane, tired from all the nights she had spent crying in the kitchen, and the drudgery of the days that preceded them. When the stewardess gave her the lunch tray, she peeled away the aluminum foil slowly, hesitantly, dreading that her husband would materialise inside the aircraft and fling the tray away. She ate every bit of the meal, carefully ensuring that not even a scrap was wasted. And then fell asleep again. She woke up only when the stewardess patted her shoulder gently, and told her that they would be landing in a few minutes.

Her mother and father had come to the airport. She found them standing outside, looking small and meek amidst the well-heeled crowd that walked quickly, dragging stylish suitcases, and chatting on fancy phones. She felt odd as she walked towards them, clad in an over-size salwar kameez, clutching her red vinyl travel bag and cheap brown handbag. They seemed to have become thinner and greyer. They didn’t say anything, but their gaze rested more on the ground than on her face. She wondered if it was because their necks were bent with worry. Or if they couldn’t bear to see the scars that marked her face. Or if they feared that their worry and anger would burn a hole through her.

The driver of the rented cab seemed to sense the morose mood of his passengers, and switched off the cheery Bollywood song that was playing. She and her mother sat at the back, with a measured distance between them. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend to be a lone passenger. 

She leaned against the wall, and stared at the empty space outside the kitchen. Her parents were speaking in low tones in the other room, no doubt wondering what they would tell the relatives and neighbours about her ‘visit’. Probably wondering when – if – she would go back. Maybe planning the formal visit to her husband’s parents, where, behind closed doors, they would bargain or beg.

She didn’t want any part of the conversation. For the moment, she was content to rest in the uncertainty that surrounded her future. Sometimes, it was better not to know – it left room for hope. An odd poem floated into her mind, something about a woman’s journey beginning in her mother’s womb, destined to end when her bier was lifted from her husband’s home. Where had she read it? Or was she making it up? Had she broken the rules? Brought dishonour to her maternal home? Made herself an object of scorn and ridicule? The questions swirled in her mind, but they didn’t hurt or prick. Like flowing water, they washed over her, leaving behind a sense of emptiness and calm.

She heard the ‘caw-caw’ of the crow from somewhere nearby. It hadn’t left after all. It seemed to be telling her of how it had lost its home. Maybe it would rebuild it. She listened to its insistent cries, waiting for it to finish, so that she too could share her story.