Will the real ‘kalamkari’ please stand up?

Pantheon Road in Egmore, better known to shopaholics as Cotton Street, is stocked with bright cotton fabrics with hand mudras and Buddhas. Customers and shopkeepers alike, call this fabric kalamkari.

One can buy a metre for ₹50. A cotton kalamkari sari at textile shops in the city costs a minimum of ₹7,500. Novice customers go back thinking their kalamkari purchase on Cotton Street was a loot.

They seldom realise that they bought screen-printed kalamkari, which is an imitation. Kalamkari etymologically means pen-work. “It takes seven to nine days to paint a kalamkari sari and another four days to make the cloth market ready, with 10 artists working on it simultaneously,” says Subba Rao, an artist from Srikalahasti who has been in this craft for 30 years now.

Will the real ‘kalamkari’ please stand up?

The screen-printed fabric, on the other hand, is produced in bulk, using chemical dyes. “90% of the kalamkaris coming out of Srikalahasti are screen-printed now,” says Naveen N, another artist.

Rajesh, the owner of MJR Kalamkari, Srikalahasti, says he does both hand-painted as well as screen-printed kalamkari and adds, “I don’t like producing screen-printed fabric. But I supply because there is demand. If my customer asks for a kalamkari sari for ₹1,500, I cannot offer a hand-painted one and instead, go in for screen-printed ones.”

Kalamkari has the Geographical Indication (GI) protection under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. GI protection prevents usage of alternative methods (like screen-printing) to make the protected product. It is a violation of the GI protection to manufacture screen-printed kalamkari. Various kalamkari artists’ associations have asked the Government for a ban, but nothing has happened. “These products are eating into the market share of traditional artisans,” says Pushyamitra Joshi, founder of EcoFab, a micro enterprise that supports rural artists.

It is difficult to tell an original from an imitation. “An original will never have repetitions. If I repeatedly draw a leaf for example, each leaf will be different and imperfect. Also, natural dyes are earthy, blurred and sober, unlike the screen-printed chemical colours,” says Vijaylakshmi Krishna of Aavaranaa, Alwarpet.

“The base colour of kalamkari fabric is always off-white because it is prepared with myrobalan and buffalo milk. If the base is in any other colour, you can safely say it is an imitation. Because buffalo milk is used throughout the process, the fabric has a peculiar odour. The pigment penetration in an original is equal on both sides of the fabric. This does not happen in screen-printing,” says Poornhima Sreekirishnan, a third year student of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai.

But lately, imperfections are being added to the screen-printing moulds and manufacturers are trying to add the odour to it as well, making it harder to identify an imitation, says Padma Rao, a designer from Bengaluru.

“Artists should form an association to take their plight to the Government,” says Pushyamitra.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 12:00:19 PM |

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