Large expanses of freshly dyed fabric spread out on the roads greeted me as I entered the dusty by lanes of the seemingly sleepy town of Pedana. While I wanted to ask for directions to the weaving colony, the meters of cloth left to dry almost on every road, nook and corner of town made it evident that the whole town is into the occupation of weaving this indigenous fabric. Located in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, Pedana is a town located about 75 km from Vijayawada and 9 km from the district headquarters, Machilipatnam.
The Persian name Kalamkari or ‘qalamkari’ is derived from the words kalam (pen) and kari (craftmanship) which translates into drawing using a pen. While there is mention of these fabrics in ancient scriptures, this art received great patronage during the 16th-17th century when the Golconda Sultanate ruled the Deccan. These wealthy sultans supported this craft and so did the Mughals who were their successors.
It was also popular with the British who used these textiles for decorative purposes. Influenced by the Persian school of art, Kalamkari is being practiced for centuries in Andhra Pradesh and the artisans who practiced this art were known as ‘qalamkars’.
A unique craft
Kalamkari is currently native to parts of India and Iran. While the distinguishing factor is the use of natural or vegetable dyes, there are two main styles prevalent in India. One is the hand painted variety that is found in Srikalahasti in Chittor district of Andhra Pradesh which involves free hand painting done on cloth. This is then filled with colors and is entirely hand made. The patterns are normally mythological with the depiction of Gods, deities and scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata being common.
The Pedana style involves the production of textiles using block printing or screen printing techniques. The prints are normally large and they are characterized by the use of bright colours. While the patterns are inspired from nature as well as mythology, the new age fabrics of Pedana have images of Buddha and Goddess Durga that have become quite popular of late.
The Pedana school of Kalamkari has been awarded a GI in 2012 under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. The Kalamkari manufactured here is distinctive in terms of the process, materials used and in its design. The town manufactures textiles in the form of running fabric, sarees, salwar sets, bedsheets, table covers etc through this unique process that is protected from imitation and copying. The manufacture too is restricted geographically to Pedana town and its neighbouring villages.
Just like other native textiles, the entire process of manufacture is a complex one and involves as many as 17 steps with multiple rounds of dyeing, washing and boiling the fabric. The initial fabric is sourced from various places like Coimbatore, Erode and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu which is first washed thoroughly to remove any impurities in the form of grease, wax and dirt.
It is then prepared for the first round of dyeing using the fruits of the Myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) tree which is a deciduous species that grows in Asia. The fruits, locally called karakaya, are dried and ground to a fine powder. This is mixed with water and a solution is prepared. The fabric is then immersed in this solution and it is rendered a buttery yellow due to the rich content of tannin in Myrobalan. The cloth is then removed and sun dried thoroughly after which it is ready for printing. The latter is done either by screen printing or by using wooden blocks using vegetable colours. The printing is done using temporary colours, hence the fabric is dried completely after which it is washed.
Then starts the process of boiling the fabric in huge iron cauldrons with the required dye along with a chemical called alizarin and a leaf locally called ‘gaja’ which helps the dye to stick firmly to the fabric. The fabrics have multiple colours and a different dye is used for each colour. The process of washing and boiling is repeated each time a colour is applied. The process needs lots of running water and it is ensured that the quality of the underlying fabric is robust and well maintained in spite of as many as 20 rounds of washing and boiling.
Distinctive organic colours
The entire process makes extensive use of natural materials like leaves, fruits, flowers and the bark of trees. Dyes are made using colour extracts from fruit peels, roots, leaves and mineral salts of iron, copper etc. The colour scheme in Kalamkari is characteristic as well with red, blue, black, yellow and green being dominantly used. Women are normally depicted in yellow while Gods are in blue and demons in red and green.
The signature red colour of Kalamkari is made from a solution of alum and tamarind seed powder and even Indian madder root. Iron ore is used to get black, blue is obtained from natural indigo crystals and yellow is extracted from pomegranate peel as well as mango bark. It is indeed credible that these manufactures have retained the use of vegetable dyes and have restrained from taking the easy way out by using harmful chemical dyes.
Like all handlooms and native crafts, there are several factors that impede Kalamkari artists and weavers today. These include poor working conditions, lack of quality raw materials and lack of access to working capital and credit facilities. The workers at the grass root level have little or no access to the end consumers and more often than not sell their products in the local market at lower prices. The domination of middle men does not help either. Due to these problems, there is a lack of interest in the craft by the next generation.
Moreover, Pedana Kalmakari is also facing competition from imitations wherein their designs and processes are being copied and fake goods are sold. It has been an ongoing challenge to save their legacy. While there have been some steps by the Government and several other organizations, a lot needs to be done before the weavers are able to establish sustainable livelihoods using their innate talents and exclusive craft.