Devika, Hemavathi, Kanchana, Muni Ganga, Mohanakumari and Sunita wear their Kalamkari stoles with pride. The pride stems from the satisfaction of having made stoles and several other Kalamkari products from scratch. Broadly, there are two popular zones for Kalamkari in Telugu-speaking states — Machilipatnam for block printed Kalamkari and Srikalahasti for the hand-painted work.
There was a time when hand-painted Kalamkari went through decline, for want of design intervention and a coordinated movement to bring it back to the fore. The traditional panels with mythological drawings had limited takers. Artists weren’t sure of earning a decent sum for their families using their craft.
Devika and the other women we met during their visit to Hyderabad, to participate in Sanmaan Awards 2018 by Crafts Council of Telangana, have walked a long way to success. The success is that of economic growth, education, and community development they’ve witnessed around them. At the Crafts Council event, DWARAKA’s founding pillar Anita Reddy was bestowed with a lifetime achievement award for her continued efforts in reviving Srikalahasti Kalamkari.
Kalamkari in a sac
Devika and the group of women are neighbours and some of them vividly recall the plight of a versatile artist in their midst in late 1990s. “Purushottam thatha would bundle up Kalamkari panels in a sac and go door to door trying to sell them,” remember Devika and Kanchana.
Purushottam’s one such desperate door-to-door trip in Bengaluru, then Bangalore, brought him to the residence of Dwarakanath Reddy and his daughter Anita Reddy. “He was broken in spirit. Looking at the Tree of Life panels, I could see the wealth of his skill. He told us there were several such artists languishing in Kalahasti. In the city, they were dismissed as beggars,” recalls Anita, who was recognised for her social work with a Padma Shri award in 2011.
Anita had 20 years of experience working in slums of Bangalore, up against land mafia. But giving a new direction to Kalamkari artists in Srikalahasti, she says, was no less daunting. DWARAKA (Development of Weavers and Rural Artisans in Kalamkari Art) is now a success story and its members recall its beginnings under a tree, with 20 people, in June 1998. “My father and I felt the art had a better chance of survival if artists came together as a united voice,” says Anita.
A training programme under the guidance of Purushottam began and young women began learning Kalamkari. In this gradual Kalamkari revival, gender and social barriers were being shattered. “I was 12 when I attended the first meeting under that tree. We didn’t think one day we would open showrooms or take part in exhibitions across the country. We were only concerned about livelihood,” says Devika.
Until then, women were unseen soldiers on the production line. Their contribution was limited to relatively easier tasks like colouring while men did the hand drawings, and took care of the laborious boiling, washing and dyeing process. At DWARAKA, all these tasks are handled by women.
Experienced women like the ones in this group have gone on to take up administrative work. Some of them take the products to local markets, gauge customer reactions and share them on their What’sApp group. New designs and patterns are also vetted on the What’sApp group.
“Traditionally we used to make large panels for door and wall hangings. There’s nothing that we haven’t tried today. Mention a gift possibility and we have it — utility items such as trays, wallets, coin purses, handbags, spectacle and mobile phone pouches, jewellery boxes, even hair clips and pens with Kalamkari motifs,” says Kanchana.
A few of these women, who discontinued schooling due to economic reasons, later pursued high school and degree courses through distance education. One of them has a degree in political science, history and economics. Some have school-going children who are eager to learn Kalamkari and pursue it alongside their jobs in future.
What helped, the women say, was the long-term guidance. “In the late 90s when we started training, there was also a one-year government-backed training programme. But you are on your own after the course. Here we had guidance and working as a group has helped us grow,” says Devika. The women have gone through domestic upheavals, health setbacks, better financial stability and education prospects for their children — a roller coaster. “If young children come to us to learn Kalamkari, we find out if they’re school drop outs and try to get them back to school,” says Kanchana.
The organisation has helped several hundreds in Srikalahasti region and are happy when someone starts a unit of their own. The members also joke about their designs being copied. “But if they use chemical dyes, or even mix natural and chemical dyes, or resort to screen printing than hand-painting Kalamkari, we know the difference,” they state.
Anita, who has been the go-to person for the DWARAKA team, has seen them grow and that being reflected in the creative energy they bring to the table. “Hand-painted Kalamkari is here to stay,” she says emphatically. She’s pleased that the women find their own space by using a skill inherent to their region. What started in a village in Srikalahasti spread gradually to include members from villages in Chittoor, Madanapalli and Pulicherla.
Anita’s focus also extends to education through Dwarakanath Reddy Institutes for Knowledge (DRIK) formed under her father’s Dwarakanath Reddy Ramanarpanam Trust (DRRT). She is in talks with members from George Washington University who visited Srikalahasti to facilitate a programme that brings in global thinking skills. “The power of 18 to 20 women under a tree was enough to bring DWARAKA this far. Next is a 12-year agenda with 2030 as the focus and witness further development of the art form and relevant education in our schools,” she says.
As DWARAKA grows, Anita’s only concern is not to dilute Kalamkari for commercial gains.
(For more on their work, look up DwarakaPlus Facebook page)