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Kalamkari: An Ode to the Ancient Art Form

31 Aug, 2023

Much of India’s art oriented dialect is synonymous with the ancient craft of Kalamkari, with ‘kalam’ translating to pen and ‘kari’ translating to craftsmanship. Said to be over three thousand years old, Kalamkari has been the object of many artistic tributes – ranging from creations by nomadic artisans of ancient India and art collectors before British colonization to fashion designers in the 21st century.


Distinct styles of Kalamkari displayed through artworks of two different eras

Originated in storytelling

The roots of Kalamkari can be traced back to the region known as Andhra Pradesh today. In its olden days, this craft was practiced widely in temples to create elaborate cloth hangings depicting scenes from the holy Mahabharata and Ramayana.

But as Kalamkari craftsmen or ‘chitrakatis’ traveled across the region, so did the art form. Soon, Kalamkari also became a vehicle to spread Buddhist beliefs as well as other religious practices far and wide.

Tree Of Life Recreated In Kalamkari

Many believe that one of the most recreated motifs in Kalamkari: The Tree Of Life, has its origins in Buddhism as the tree’s roots represent the underworld, the trunk the earth and the long branches point at heaven, creating the perfect universe.

A Labor Of Love

Intricately made with a process involving over twenty steps, Kalamkari requires a detail oriented mindset and nimble hands to recreate this  elaborate artform. The process often starts with bleaching, gumming and sun drying the fabric naturally to prepare a base for drawing motifs, the ink for which is made by preparing a mix of iron powder, jaggery powder and water.

But despite these elaborate steps, what Kalamkari is most notable for is its use of natural vegetable dyes used to create earthy pigments. It may be said these practices contribute to Kalamkari being one of the few art forms which is inherently eco conscious.

The Western Impact

Although Kalamkari had  been a visual celebration of the life of the gods since the beginning, being exposed to an international audience across Europe, Euro Asian and Scandinavian regions catalyzed the beginning of a modern phase for this art form.

Floral Kalamkari patterns from V Living depict a modern interpretation of the art form.

After being used to a rich and regular supply for centuries, British Raj combined with the Industrial Revolution in India deprived western customers of  original Kalamkari fabrics among others. As a result, they began resorting to creating their own versions of the art form, which often bore Victorian elements rather than images of Indian deities and religious designs. This modernisation made Kalamkari far more wearable and accessible among western audiences whereas among Indian artisans, it led to the realization that this could be the key to revive Kalamkari after the Industrial Revolution years.

Kalamkari Today

Kalamkari patterns of today can be traditional or modern or an amalgamation of both. The religious visuals of the old style still have a prominent place in the fabrics being created for today’s customers but the versatile appeal of western inspired Kalamkari designs cannot be denied either.

Small and delicate chintz patterns which often feature flower heads, leaves, and climbers as design components make for a pretty visual when adapted to home decor.

Voile Kalamkari Curtains from VLiving pay homage to the drawing stage in Kalamkari, where motifs are hand drawn on fabric before filling them in with other colors.

Through the VLiving Kalamkari collection we also pay tribute to the roots of Kalamkari which saw use of vegetable dyes for creating hues of red, blue, green and other earthy tones.

Kalamkari Cushion Cover and Tablecloth from V Living

It’s also been a conscious choice to offer utilitarian items like pouch bags and kitchen essentials which allow an ancient art form like Kalamkari to thrive in the day to day life of a diversified audience.

Kalamkari Kitchen apron and storage pouch from VLiving

The collection is geared towards curating a home which is functional but also reflects an appreciation for culture and history. Because it is often handpicked items with cultural relevance like these which set the tone of a home and elevate the aesthetic to a tasteful one.