Pitchuka Srinivas, the lone crusader

The last kalamkari craftsman in a tiny Andhra Pradesh town is fighting to preserve the original handmade form of the craft

September 21, 2019 04:26 pm | Updated 04:26 pm IST

Pitchuka Srinivas in front of his tree of life. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

Pitchuka Srinivas in front of his tree of life. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

If you want to know about kalamkari, you must visit Pitchuka Srinivas.” These words from a resident of Pedana village were like music to my ears. It was nearly dusk and I had given up my mission of meeting any traditional artisans in this tiny Andhra Pradesh town near Machilipatnam; I had not known that they don’t do much work during the monsoon.

Veering off the small road into a labyrinth of bylanes, I soon found myself outside Srinivas’s home. It was a two-storied building, with a board outside announcing a Kalamkari Musuem on the first floor.

Kalamkari carpets at Srinivas’s museum. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

Kalamkari carpets at Srinivas’s museum. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

Pedana is the famous home of the handmade block-printed kalamkari fabric, and almost the entire supply of it across the country comes from here. But there’s a catch. Today, a large majority of the kalamkari is screen-printed with chemical colours as opposed to the conventional method of using wooden blocks and vegetable dyes and printing by hand. With rising demand, the artisans have given up the original laborious and eco-friendly handmade process for the much faster and cheaper screen-printing. Srinivas is probably the only artisan left who still continues the handmade tradition, and his museum is an attempt to preserve the craft.

Readying the samples

As I stood admiring the intricate and delicate prints on display, Srinivas’s son Varun came up to me. “My grandfather Pitchuka Veera Subbaiah introduced kalamkari to Pedana in the 70s. He had a block-maker working for him at that time,” he said. Subbaiah had dreams of exporting the fabric but passed away before he could do that. That’s when Srinivas decided to step in. He spent close to two years readying the sample by printing blocks on white cloth. Then in 2002, he started to export. His designs found a patron in New York-based designer Mary Bergtold Mulcahy and today, Pedana kalamkari is the mainstay of Mulcahy’s Hudson store, Les Indiennes. In 2014, when Varun joined his father, they found that there were local buyers as well who wanted the handmade fabric despite the cost difference. That’s when they started making saris, fabrics and bedsheets for the domestic market.

Washed and dried

The block-printing process is tedious and needs a lot of attention at every stage. The museum documents the entire process through photographs, and you can see the cotton cloth first soaked in water and then mixed with cow dung. It is wrung out and left to dry overnight before being stone-washed and spread out on grass to dry. It is then treated with myrobalan and buffalo milk to ensure the natural dyes set in properly.

The blocks used for printing. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

The blocks used for printing. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

At the next stage, the cloth is washed in flowing water, usually in one of Pedana’s many canals, before being boiled in copper vessels in water to which flowers and roots are added for more colour. The cloth is then washed again and printed with secondary colours like blue, gold, green, brown and pink, which are also obtained from natural materials. Finally, the cloth is treated with alum water and washed with soap. The process takes a minimum of 15 days depending on the weather.

At the museum, Srinivas showed me his tree of life, created using a record 217 blocks. “Many people have tried to copy it by using a pen for the intricate details, but my design was done only with handmade blocks,” he said.

Traditionally, the wooden blocks were made from solid teak wood and the intricate design was chiselled on to the surface. The block itself was designed in such a way that it could be easily gripped by anyone. Today, the blocks are made from lighter wood and come with standard designs. “It takes five times the effort to make the old blocks and we don’t have such skilled artisans any more,” said Srinivas.

Though Srinivas counts the museum among his achievements, his proudest moment he said, was another one altogether. “The day my son decided to join me in promoting this art was the greatest moment in my life. I am very passionate about kalamkari and happy that there is a growing awareness of the traditional method,” he said.


Pen art

There are two types of kalamkari: the block-printed fabric whose hubs are at Pedana and Machilipatnam, and the pen-drawn kalamkari practised in Srikalahasti in Chittoor district. The art dates back to the 11th century. The Persians came to the port of Maesolia (now Machilipatnam) and gave the and discovered the hand block fabric the name . The word kalamkari, which itself comes from the Persian qalam (pen) and kari (craftsmanship).

The freelance writer and photographer from Bengaluru seeks offbeat experiences through travel.

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