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Kalamkari: Where Artistry Meets Sustainability

What is Kalamkari?

Kalamkari is an Indian textile tradition known for its intricate hand-painted pictorial narratives and motifs. Originating in southern India, particularly in the present-day states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, this art form has captivated hearts for centuries (including ours!). 

Although it is unclear when exactly the art form emerged, the earliest extant examples of the craft date back to the fifteenth century. The word "Kalamkari," given to the art form while southern India was under the rule of the Persianate Qutb Shahi dynasty, is derived from two Persian words: "kalam," meaning pen, and "kari," meaning craftsmanship. True to its name, Kalamkari involves the meticulous use of pens, brushes, and blocks to create mesmerizing patterns on fabric. 

The Intricate (and Sustainable!) Process of Making Kalamkari

Practiced in two distinct styles known as Kalahasti and Machilipatnam, Kalamkari entails an elaborate process that consists of not one, not two, but a whopping twenty-three steps! Depending on the size and complexity of the piece, this labor-intensive process can take up to several months to complete. Yet, at least to us at TC, what makes this process so impressive is not merely its length, but also how sustainable it is!


Artisans begin by treating cotton fabric with a blend of cow dung and water to create an off-white canvas. To prepare the fabric for dyeing, it is then submerged in a solution called pindhi, which consists of buffalo milk infused with paste from the myrobalan flower. Then, using bamboo pens or hand-carved wooden blocks depending on the style of Kalamkari, artisans sketch or print intricate designs on the fabric. Once the fabric is dry, pigments made from natural substances such as jaggery, indigo, pomegranate peels, and madder roots are used to fill in the outlined designs. Finally, to ensure its longevity, the fabric undergoes a series of washing and finishing processes. 

This inherently eco-friendly process makes Kalamkari not only a feat of craftsmanship, but also a prime example of sustainability in the world of textile arts.

The Signs of Authenticity:

Unfortunately, the intricate and time-consuming process involved in traditional Kalamkari craftsmanship, coupled with economic challenges for artisans, has led to a decline in the availability of authentic, sustainably-produced Kalamkari pieces. In its place, mass-produced, machine-generated designs—often laden with harmful synthetic chemicals—are increasingly dominating the market, jeopardizing the rich cultural heritage of the art form and further crippling the livelihoods of its artisans. 

So how can you tell if what you’re buying is the real deal?

One of the hallmarks of authentic Kalamkari lies in its imperfections. Occasionally you might spot a crooked line, a misshapen motif, smudged paint, or a subtle stain—fear not! These are not flaws but rather signatures of genuine craftsmanship! In fact, we at TC believe that Kalamkari’s so-called “imperfections” are what make it beautiful and lend it a unique human touch. 

The second tell-tale sign of authentic Kalamkari is the delicate aroma of milk that lingers in the fabric. This distinctive smell is a reminder of the elaborate treatment the fabric underwent, from bleaching and softening to the meticulous application of natural dyes. 

Last of all, unlike synthetic imitations, authentic Kalamkari only uses natural dyes, which impart earthy tones, so make sure to steer clear of unnaturally vibrant colors! 


From Mythology to Modernity: The Journey of Kalamkari

Originally, Kalamkari emerged as a religious art form, depicting scenes and motifs from both Hindu and Islamic artistic traditions. The Kalahasti style of Kalamkari traditionally depicts characters from Hindu mythology and draws inspiration from scenes in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Paintings in the Kalahasti style often adorned the walls of temples, serving as decorative backdrops for rituals and ceremonies. On the other hand, the Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari, influenced by the patronage of the Mughals and the Golconda Sultanate, features archetypal Persian and Mughal motifs including leaves, flowers, birds, and most commonly, the tree of life.

Kalahasti style of Kalamkari; Source:


Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari; Source: Map Academy 

However, over time, Kalamkari has transcended its religious origins and has evolved to reflect India’s diverse social and cultural landscape. While still drawing inspiration from mythological narratives, contemporary Kalamkari artisans seamlessly weave tradition with innovation to appeal to broader audiences. One such pioneering group of Kalamkari artisans is the Mashaallah Kalamkari Collection, which was founded in 2014 and operates out of Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. From cotton to luxurious silk and from exquisite sarees to versatile dress material, the MK Collection specializes in all things Kalamkari. Skillfully blending age-old techniques with contemporary aesthetics, the MK Collection works tirelessly to preserve the essence of Kalamkari while imbuing it with a fresh, modern charm.


Check out the Mashaallah Kalamkari Collection’s creations at our store


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