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The Legacy of Kalamkari

by Sundari Silks 13 Mar 2020
The Legacy of Kalamkari

The pictorial painting on cotton from the coromandel coast is one of the most exquisite arts of India. Kalamkari is an ancient Indian textile tradition in which designs are fully hand-drawn or block printed using vegetable dyes.


The early origins of this art form were portrayed in the form of religious tapestry as temple scrolls. They adorned the ceilings and corridors of the temples as mural paintings. Later on, the imagery transformed into a textile design revealing the very soul of Indian culture. The age-old practices and traditional techniques stood the test of time and provided a pictorial record of the society as well. Here is a glimpse of the ceiling in a hall at the Veerabadraswamy temple at Lepakshi, covered with sketches from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha, depicting the grandeur of Vijayanagara's art.


Amongst the Indian textile tradition, the simple cotton Kalamkari fabric had a greater impact and revolutionised the garment trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. The vibrant jewel-bright colours, printed and painted, caught the fancy of women in England and France and became the fashion for daily wear. Kalamkari fabrics, dubbed as chintz, by the English traders, formed a major part of the trade of the East India Company.

There are two main styles in Kalamkari painting - one is a fully hand-painted style, which is essentially narrative in character, and often religious. The other style is the block-printed style, which has a wider application in garments and articles of everyday use. The major centre for hand-painted Kalamkari is the temple town of Sri Kalahasti and for block-printed Kalamkari it is Masulipatnam. But nowadays, this art is practised all over Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.


Kalam, means a pen, and the art of freehand line forms the base of Kalamkari designs. The function of a painting was to convey a story, and the artists were well versed in iconography and stories of the epics. The colours used were to depict a mood, for example, rajas (a violent emotion) was painted in red and sattvic emotions were done in white and yellow.


The Islamic culture took a larger synthesis of this art form and their inherent love for natural motifs surfaced in the Kalamkari fabrics of that time. The lotus, the palm, the mango, the peacock and the elephant motifs intermingled and blended in their design.

The block printed and screen printed versions of the art has had a brutal assault over the pen Kalamkari tradition. Over the years, the tradition slowly moved away from being an exclusive hand-painted art form and was transformed into a commercial commodity.


It is amazing that a 3000-year-old craft of pen Kalamkari still survives, unaltered and majestic in its very simplicity. Absorbing various influences like screen printing, the craft has managed to retain its traditional identity and unique character. Whether hand-painted or block-printed, the traditional designs and motifs of the craft speak a language of their own, and it is by recognising this inner voice that the future of the art can be secured.


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