This eighth century art continues to be popular even today. Once patronised by the Mughals, Kalamkari now has a niche market.

The art of painting on cloth dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization and ancient Greece. Kalamkari, which means work done with a pen, a kalam, is an ancient art of India. There is archaeological evidence of this resist-dyed painting done in the eighth century. The Mughals, especially during the time of Akbar, patronised this art in the Coromandel coast and the Golconda region.

Different schools

Known as Golconda cotton painting, traces of this art were found in Persia during the 16th Century. Masulipatnam became the centre of the art during the next century. As Golconda was under Muslim rule, Persian designs became more popular.

Later when the British East India Company and the French East India Company flourished in India, the demand for this cloth in the European market grew and hence designs changed too.

During the 19th Century, Srikalahasti developed as another centre of cotton painting. This area was still under the Hindu rulers and hence Hindu mythological characters dominated the design.

Around this time, the Karrupur school of Kalamkari painting came into existence in Thanjavur. This was patronised by the Maratha rulers. Painting was done on gold brocade cloth, and clothes made of this art were worn by the members of the Maratha royal family.

In the early 20th Century, there was a fall in the demand for Kalamkari painted cloth.

This century-old-art suffered greatly and the artists took to other professions. By the end of the last century, the art was revived and now there is a huge demand for this. Apart from wall hangings, the artists paint on garments and other household items.

Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti still remain the hub for Kalamkari painting.

“There is very little difference in the style and in the designs found in these two centres,” says Mr K. Venkateshwar Rao, the Manager of the Lepakshi Emporium at Vijayawada.

“Due to the Persian and European influence on the designs in the Masulipatnam school of art, the designs are still intricate and delicate. In this school, the artists work with the kalam and do block printing also. However, the artists of the Srikalahasti school, which grew under the patronage of the Hindu temples, still work on Hindu mythological designs. Moreover, in this area, the artists use the kalam only.”

Today the print is in vogue as trendy tops and kurtas and sought after in the global markets. Wall frames and panels, door mats and table covers are also in great demand. Kalamkari remains a favourite for its intricate work and vibrant hues.