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Updated: September 20, 2013 13:11 IST

Exquisite artistry

Pushpa Chari
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Kalamkari piece done in snakes and ladders format. Photo: K. Pichumani
The Hindu Kalamkari piece done in snakes and ladders format. Photo: K. Pichumani

Aesthetic Kalamkari work is on view at the Government Museum.

Master artisan and Kalamkari painter, Jonalagadda Lakshmaiah, who literally revived Kalamkari single-handedly in the 1950s and ’60s, and whose legendary compositions hang in the Victoria and Albert Museum, believed that Kalamkari was a name given by foreign artists and that its true name was Eyuthuvalia in Tamil, Chandavi in Urdu and Chandni in Farsi.

Kalamkari has come to define the art done by pointed bamboo kalam or pen that outlines the stories, while a thicker kalam fills in the colours to give its narratives life. History has it that the Qutub Shahi rulers of Golconda introduced Persian motifs to the traditional painter’s repertoire, to decorate the attire of the nobleman and aristocracy of the court. This probably marks the beginnings of Machilipatnam Kalamkari that was originally a hand painted cloth featuring Persian motifs and which later morphed into block printed fabric.

While Machilipatnam Kalamkari flourished under the nawabs of the Deccan and caught the fancy of the East India Company traders with its Persian inspired roses, brilliant birds of paradise and tree of life imagery, Kalahasti Kalamkari reached its golden period under the Vijaynagar rulers. Beautifully crafted panels narrating the exploits of gods and goddesses and tales from the epics and Puranas decorated palace and temple alike. Kalamkari also began to decorate lifestyle products such as board games and sports during this time leaving its imprint aesthetically and in the moral values it espoused.

A 19th century ‘paramapadam’ or dice set depicting a snakes and ladders game in the language of Kalamkari art is on view as ‘Display of the Fortnight’ at the Government Museum, Egmore. Done in the snakes and ladders format, the piece features fearsome but artistically done snakes and ladders with the many tiny squares depicting human faces in typical head gear, rishis, tigers, lions, birds, palm trees and flowers as well as legends in the Telugu script. The kalam lines are delicately done in typical colours of red and black and bordered with Kalamkari motifs.

The game is also known as ‘parama pada sopanam’ meaning ‘steps to the highest place.’ It is believed that the game was symbolic of man’s endeavour through life to reach the highest plane with the ladders representing virtues and the snakes depicting vices. Done in vegetable colours, the exhibit is a wonderfully evocative piece in its aesthetics, as a piece of Kalamkari and as social history.

The process of creating a Kalamkari piece remains unchanged. It begins with the unbleached cloth being dipped in a solution of myrobalan and buffalo milk to form an insoluble material, which clings firmly to the fibres of the cloth. This is followed by drawing the outlines of the art work with kalam dipped in a 15-day solution of iron filings and jaggery. Natural colours such as indigo, alum and madder are now filled in, the cloth dried and the piece washed in the running waters of Swarnamukhi river. The Kalamkari piece is now ready - a collage of mythology, religion, history, geography, stroke work and the intense dedication of the artist.

The ‘Display of the Fortnight’ will be on view at Govt. Museum, Egmore, till September 22.

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