She is one call away for designers who want hand-painted Kalamkari on hand-woven fabrics. While the end product grabs limelight at fashion weeks, Mamata Reddy is happy being the backbone of an enterprise she built for 20 years, finds Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

In 1991, a young mathematics graduate sat among a few kalamkari painters in Tirupati, goading them to think beyond wall hangings. She wanted them to use their art to meet the requirements of changing lifestyle needs. They looked at her dismissively, wondering how an ‘outsider' can change their prospects.

Today, the Kalam Creations Artisans Society she set up then takes care of the livelihood of more than 40 families in Tirupati, apart from helping set up looms for many other weavers in the area. Mamata Reddy says with joy, “This Deepavali looks good. The artisans have plenty of orders — for new collections of designers Rohit Bal, Madhu Jain and Sashikant Naidu among others. We are also starting a new workshop at Kalahasti where a few designers will also be involved in training underprivileged women in innovative Kalamkari designs.”

Each designer who came to her to source fabric with Kalamkari patterns had new requirements, she narrates. Rohit Bal, known for his western silhouettes, wanted nothing but florals. “We are waiting to see the end product, since his garments are made for the international market. As against the regular practice of making 6.5 metre pieces, he wanted pieces of 12.5 metres each,” she says.

Madhu Jain, who is working on a collection for a special show in March 2012 to celebrate her 25th year in the fashion industry, likes traditional Kalamkari motifs of mythological figures and peacocks. Sashikant Naidu posed a challenge while working on his 2010 Lakme Fashion Week collection when he wanted floral motifs in solid hues on hand-woven fine count cotton and khadi. Monochrome wouldn't suffice. He wanted varied colours and even 'fillings' in minute dimensions, calling for expert work from the artistes. “We started designing special floral motifs when Anand Kabra placed orders from us. Since then, we've seen varied requirements. Sabyasachi Mukherji likes both peacocks and florals. Anuradha Vakil loves using large peacock motifs in her saris,” says Mamata. Neeta and Nishka Lulla also turned to her recently for Kalamkari.

Mamata prefers the age old method of free hand Kalamkari drawings on hand-woven fabric. She never uses power-loom fabric and turns down requests for block printing and screen printing. “There are enough buyers for hand-painted Kalamkaris. So why not? And this method guarantees employment for more artisans,” she says.

At her apartment in Ameerpet, fresh stock of Kalamkari saris and dupattas are being arranged, she says, “I am no good at selling. Madhavi (her trusted assistant who has stayed with her over a decade) is in-charge of marketing and selling. I am most happy when I am in Tirupati, at the Kalam Creations Artisan Society, among artisans.”

You learn it isn't mere lip service when she takes off on a tangent and narrates all things she feels responsible for — settling disputes that arise out of young artisans eloping, counselling painters who go through divorce, giving a helping hand when artisans want to see their siblings employed, counselling young women who find it tough to cope with work after marriage — the list is endless.

“People ask me why I should bother about all this. Most of these families have been dependent on me for years. For instance, my master craftsman has been working with me for the last 18 years. We are like one huge family. I have to take care of them,” she smiles.

The three-month training workshop she is about to have in Kalahasti post Deepavali will teach young women the art of painting Kalamkari motifs, step by step. “In the first month, they will learn to sketch on paper. The second month, they will draw on cloth. After the three-month period, they can work with the master craftsman or form smaller groups and take care of a unit. The participants will be provided accommodation, food and materials required for the training,” she says. Most of her profits go back into conducting training workshops such as these. She reflects, “I started this society with just Rs. 500. My family didn't feel the pinch because I used to travel by buses and didn't spend much money. My mother was a school teacher. With her creative bent of mind and social outlook, she was my pillar of strength. She knew each one of the artisans — their food habits, family background, health issues… — her sudden demise was a huge blow for all of us. It took me a while to regain my composure and continue my work. Now, my dad is a driving spirit and my husband, Srikanth, takes care of the business.”

She's seen the highs and lows of business and states matter-of-factly, “I still remember sending my very first consignment of Kalamkari cushion covers to my elder sister in Mumbai. Her friends liked the work and orders poured in. My younger sister who lives in the US keeps reminding me to take a break and enjoy a holiday. But there is so much to do... we are setting up a store for my master craftsman in Tirupati. I also intend to open a lifestyle store here along with Sashikant Naidu. It's not about money any more. I've been through rough and good times. I am happy to be able to support the 40-odd families who are able to earn well through Kalamkari.”

Traditionally fashionable

Designers who have sourced hand-painted Kalamkari from Mamata: Anand Kabra, Madhu Jain, Neeta and Nishka Lulla, Madhu Jain, Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi Mukherji and Sashikant Naidu. From traditional mythological motifs to peacocks and florals, the demands vary according to the traditional and western silhouettes the designers showcase in their collections.

Mamata uses only hand-woven fabrics and hand-painted Kalamkari. She refuses to employ techniques of block printing and screen printing techniques in order to provide livelihood for more painters.

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