Kalamkari, which literally means ‘pen work’, are paintings done on textile with vegetable or natural dyes. The Kalakmari tradition flourished throughout India from the 14th century onwards, but gained popularity and acquired its name during Muslim rule.

The technique began to die out with the introduction of machine-printed textiles, and now only a small number of artisans practice the craft in centres in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Chief among these are Srikalahasti and Masulipatinam. The Kalamkari Unit in Kalakshetra uses methods based on extensive research in both of these areas.

A devotional strain of the craft developed in Srikalahasti which was a centre of pilgrimage. The temple Kalamkaris are narrative, and based on themes from Hindu mythology, describing anything from a single episode to the whole sweep of an epic. The only tool used for these intricate works was the Kalam, a thin bamboo stick sharpened to a point like the nib of a pen. Above this nib is a compact ball of hair which holds the liquid dye used as ink. In time, the Srikalahasti tradition incorporated perforated stencils and still later, hand carved wooden blocks used for patterns.

In the Masulipatinam tradition, the outlines and main features of all the designs are printed with hand-carved blocks and only the details are painted by hand. Old traditional blocks, many with Persian motifs, have been used for many years.

The dyes used in Kalamkari are colors extracted from plants, roots, leaves and similar vegetable matter, combined with minerals like iron, and mordants like alum. These colors are fast, but are not harsh and gaudy, and they acquire a certain clarity wash by wash. Harsh chemicals are never used, and the traditional methods followed for bleaching and printing impart a mellow beauty and durability to the fabric which is characteristic of Kalamkari.

Kalamkari work is a time-consuming process, involving as many as fifteen steps. This includes bleaching, the application of myrobalam, painting and printing, washing, dyeing, bleaching, starching, waxing, indigo vat dyeing, wax removing, bleaching, starching, the application of yellow and green colors, the application of alum and bleaching. Sunlight is the main bleaching agent. Not being photo – sensitive like chemical dyes, vegetable dye printed fabrics do not fade in unsightly patches, even with repeated washing and exposure to sunlight.