Kalamkari Sarees



Kalamkariis an exquisite ancient craft of painted and printed fabrics. It derives it’s name from Kalam meaning Pen, and Kari meaning work, literally Pen-work. It is a hand painting as well as block printing with vegetable dyes. InAndhraPradesh, both the Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti village are recognised as major centers for Kalamkari painting. Masulipatnam located on the south – east coast of India, 200 miles east of Hyderabad, and Srikalahasti 80 miles north of Chennai near Tirupati are the leaders in producing Kalamkari paintings. Kalamkari as practised in Masulipatnam is different from the Kalamkari practised in Srikalahasti.

Masulipatnam style of painting

Masulipatnam designs are Iranian in character with intricate and delicate forms. The old traditional block prints were largely used with Persian motifs like trees, creepers, flowers and leaf designs. Later came the Dutch influence when there was an increase in demand from Europe. This style of Kalamkari was mainly doneon bed covers, curtains and also garments, as it was a popular demand from the west. In the nineteenth century block prints reached its peak and even today it’s largely produced for Indians and foreigners.

Srikalahasti style of painting

Coming to Srikalahasti, temples were a major inspiration. The art flourished under the patronage of the temples with their demands for scrolls and wall hangings with story figurative and narratives components. It richly displayed episodes from the Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and other Mythological stories for their themes painted in the panels with a script runningalong the border. The subjects chosen to paint were restricted to Godssuch as Krishna, Brahma, Ganesha, Durga, Kiratavinyaar juna, Lakshmi, Rama, Shiva and Parvathi.


It is believed that the earliest fragments of painted fabrics were found during the Indus valley civilisation and in ancient Greece before the time of Christ. The archaeological evidences tell us that the hand painting on resists – dyed cloth was discovered in the eighth century. The popularity of this art was found in the old writings of the French traveler, Francois Bernies. Other evidence like the illustration of the Hamzanamesh done at the time of Akbar, also talk about profuse use of painted fabricsproduced in the Golconda region.

The Moghuls patronised this craft in the Coromandel and Golconda provinces. Thus the name Kalamkari comes from the Urdu word Qualam meaning Pen. Muslim influence and therefore trade links were traced between Safavid Persia and Qutbshi Golconda around the sixteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, the Golconda cotton paintings as they were known, came from Chennai Golconda, and Masulipatnam became a well-known center. As Golconda was under Muslimrule, the artistic designs produced in Masulipatnam catered to Persian taste. As Srikalahasti was under Hindu rulers, it flourished directly under the patronage of temples, and exclusively drew figures and narrated mythological stories. At the end of 1565, there was a great European demand, and new exotic Eastern motifs were created by both the Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti Schools. British East India Company and French East India Company asked for their choice of designs, and it is interesting to note that even a Chinese–looking Kalamkari was ordered by the French! Then a new type of Kalamkari named Karrupur emerged in Thanjavur and was patronized by the Maratharulers. It was delicately painted on the golden brocaded cloth. These clothes were made into sarees and dhotis and were worn by Chatrapathi Shivaji and by the royalfamilies in the early nineteenth century. Srikalahasti styleof figurative painting became important centre only in the nineteenth century. This specialisation with panels or individual episodes was taken from epics and continues in Srikalahasti even today.

In the beginning of twentieth century there was less demand for exporting Kalamkari painting and thereby it lost its creative value. The Kalamkari artists suffered, and most of them turned to different professions. Today as we entered into the new millennium, there is a flourishing demand on Kalamkari painting and this dying craft is saved. These Kalamkari paintings are always done for wall hangings, but today it is also painted on sarees, dhotis, dupatas, cushion covers, lampshades, tablecovers, bedspreads, napkins, etc.


The Kalamkari art of painting undergoes a laborious, slow process of resist – dyeing and hand printing. Many stages have to be undergone before the final results are achieved. Unlike other styles of painting, Kalamkari painting demands a lot of treatment before and after the painting is completed on the cotton fabric. Depending on the treatment of cloth, or quality of the mordant, the colours change accordingly. Every step from soaking of cloth, to sketching the outlines to washing and drying the cloth, is done carefully and correctly.

The entire worlds over people are turning away from dangerous chemical dyes. The harmless, naturally dyed fabrics are used for Kalamkari painting. The artists believe in using natural dyes, extracting from bark, flower and root. One would be stunned to know that the colour red is obtained by using the Indian madder root, yellow from the pomegranate seed or even mango bark, and colour black from myrobalam fruit. No chemical dyes are used is producing Kalamkari colours.

The process used for both schools of Kalamkari painting is more or less the same. The only major difference is that Srikalahasti paintings, depend entirely on the brush – like pen where as the Masulipatnam style uses block-printing procedures. The process done in Srikalahasti is more tedious. The cloth is treated and washed twice, and two or three times alum is painted.


  • Cloth is first whitened by immersing it in a solution of goat or cow dung and letting it dry in the sun for a few days.
  • Cloth is then treated in Myrobalan solution. Ripe fruits are used in Masulipatnam, rawonesin Srikalahasti. Milk is then added to the solution to prevent the colour spreading in the next step.
  • The iron acetate solution is filled in, either for solid spaces or as outlines, with a brush – pen in Srikalahasti, and wooden blocks in Masulipatnam.
  • All the areas meant to be red are painted or printed over with the alum solution as a mordant. Mordant is a substance that fixes the natural dye on the material.
  • After applying alum, the cloth is kept for at least 24 hours. Thentheexcess mordantisremoved by washing the cloth under flowing water.
  • The dyeing is done for the red colour by boiling with the red colouring materials.
  • All the portions which are not to be blue are covered with wax.
  • The waxed cloth is immersed in indigo solution. In Srikalahasti the blue is painted with the kalam. Then the wax is removed by boiling the cloth in water.
  • The yellow is painted on to produce yellow and green.
  • The cloth is finally washed again and dried before final colours emerge.