On a sultry Monday morning, as you pass through the quaint town of Pedana in Andhra Pradesh, you’ll notice that every second store sells Kalamkari. Sarees, dresses and fabric with intricate designs depicting temple art, trees, flowers, birds and more are hung outside, most reading ‘Pedana Kalamkari’ and ‘Wholesale prices’.
Pedana, a small town near the coastal town of Machilipatnam is the largest hub in the country for hand block printed Kalamkari. Today, most of the Kalamari fabric you find in stores in across India comes from here.
Off the main road, down winding lanes, is a workshop belonging to Pitchuka Srinivas, a Kalamkari artisan. As you enter, you hear faint ‘thuds’, almost rhythmic, as nearly 20 workers are busy printing designs on to fabric using blocks.
Srinivas is one of the only artisans in the country who still follows the original technique of hand-block printed Kalamkari.
“Over 90% of the Kalamkari you get here in India is fake. Wherever you see it, online and elsewhere, it’s not block printed, its screen printed Kalamkari, made with chemical colours,” claims Srinivas.
And since Srinivas took over the workshop from his father Pitchuka Veera Subbaiah, he has been struggling to keep the original art form, which dates back to the 11th and 12th century, alive and intact.
Pitchuka Srinivas at his workshop in Pedana
In its essence, there are two types of Kalamkari: Hand block printed Kalamkari and Pen-drawn Kalamkari. While Pedana and Machilipatnam are the hub for hand block-printed Kalamkari, Srikalahasti in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh is known for the pen-drawn format.
History of Kalamkari
Kalamkari has been around for nearly 2000 years in India. The word Kalamkari is a combination of Kalam, which means pen, and kari, which means work. However, it wasn’t always called by this name.
Around the 11th century, when the Persians travelled to the port of Maesolia (Now Machilipatnam) to make money, they discovered that there was fabric available in India, which was hand printed using blocks.
Back then it was called ‘Addakam’, which meant printed cloth.
Persians made carpets, curtains, kurtas, and sarees out of this fabric. “They would buy the fabric here and sell it back in their nations at 100 times the price. When they saw that there was a lot of demand for this type of art, they decided to set up tents along the banks of Machilipatnam in a bid to develop the trade of the ‘Addakam’ fabric,” says Mohammed Silar, a retired Tahsildar and historian, who has written several books on Machilipatnam and its rich history.
They would buy the printed fabric, which had intricate drawings depicting temples, gods, people, trees, leaves and flowers and would use pens made from tamarind, dip them in natural dyes and colour in them. That work, done with these pens, gave the art form the name of ‘Kalamkari’.
Pedana’s tryst with Kalamkari
Srinivas’s father Pitchuka Veera Subbaiah, who ran a handloom saree business with four other partners, first heard of Kalamkari when he was in Bombay promoting his business. He was surprised that he didn’t know that there was a famous art form such as this in a town (Machilipatnam) so close by. He then came back, found out more about the art form and decided to start making and selling Kalamkari.
Pitchuka Veera Subbaiah, the founder of Kalamkari in Pedana
He first started it in early 1970s in Polavaram with his partners. But the partnership fell through very soon and he came back to his hometown Pedana and started the first Kalamkari firm in 1972, that made and sold hand block-printed Kalamkari commercially.
As his business took off successfully, others in the town began seeing a value in the art form as well. Soon, there were several families in Pedana that were involved in producing block printed Kalamkari.
“In those times there was a lot of healthy competition to make better designs and improve the art form. But as the popularity for the art form grew, especially from the generation after my father's, they started commercialising it completely,” Srinivas says.
The original art form
Hand block-printed Kalamkari is a tedious and time-consuming process involving a minimum of 10 steps.
Cotton cloth pieces are bought from mills and cut into pieces. These pieces are soaked in water mixed with cow-dung. Once soaked well, the water is loosely squeezed out and the cloth is laid on the floor overnight.
The next morning, these pieces are washed on a stone in a pond and spread on grass and water till evening. This process is repeated the next day and then all the cloth pieces are washed and dried.
The next step involves treating the cloth with Myrobalan seeds and buffalo milk to prevent smudging of dyes when painted. After this process, the cloth is printed using natural colours as per the required design and then washed in flowing, fresh water.
Some of the natural ingredients used to make colours
“Pond washing takes two hours and is a difficult process. Any negligence causes damage of the cloth,” Srinivas says.
Once washed and dried, the cloth is boiled in copper vessels using leaves, roots, barks, dry flowers etc to give colours. Different ingredients give different colours. For example, pomegranate peels give a mustard colour, while roots and barks give brown, etc.
After boiling, the cloth has to be washed well to remove mud, which comes from the natural ingredients. Post this, starch is applied on the cloth for stiffness required for the second layer of colouring. Starching also avoids spreading of the second layer of colour.
After starching, the second layer of colouring is done, which is then treated in alum water and dried. Alum water ensures the colour stays on the cloth. Finally, the cloth is washed with soap and dried.
Washing the fabric in running water is the most important part of the process
The colours too, are made by those producing the Kalamkari cloth. This, too, is a time-consuming process. For example, making black colour requires mixing iron scraps, jaggery and salt water kept in a mud jar, which is immersed inside the soil, tightly shut and left for 21 days for the colour to be formed and ready for printing.
“All the colours are natural and are from earth. The shades of the colour do vary. For example, the roots, barks, leaves and flowers give out a dark shade if the tree is 15 years old, and a lighter shade if the tree is 7 years old,” explains Srinivas.
Therefore, it can take days to produce one original hand block-printed Kalamkari bedsheet or saree.
Emergence of fake Kalamkari
As the popularity of Kalamkari grew not just in India, but abroad as well, residents of Pedana wanted a faster way to make and sell Kalamkari fabric.
“People started looking for loopholes and how best to cut costs. Eliminating the long process of making natural colours, they started using chemical colours. They started screen printing and selling them as original kalamkari, and in no time made crores of rupees, driven by high volumes,” he adds.
A few kilometres away from Srinivas’ workshop is the production unit of Jhansi Kalamkari and Handlooms, one of the largest makers of screen-printed Kalamkari in Pedana, owned by Koteswara Rao. The ambience here is a complete contrast to that of Srinivas’ workshop.
Workers are scurrying across long tables of cloth laid out. Large screens are placed over the cloth, colour is poured over them, as the design gets imprinted on to the cloth. Cans of chemical colours lie by each table. As one gets empty, workers bring larger cans from the store room and refill them. In less than 10 minutes, two sarees have been printed. Printed sarees are laid out to dry, screens washed and the process resumed. The workers don’t seem to have the time to engage in conversation.
“We are given targets, which we need to finish by the end of the day, move move!” a worker says, pushing us away.
The stench of chemicals is thick in the air and unlike the designs seen at Srinivas’ workshop, the colours of the final product here are much brighter and designs too, are much bolder.
Screen-printed Kalamkari saree in the making
Koteswara Rao was away during the visit to his unit and despite several attempts, TNM wasn’t able to speak with him.
There is a clear difference between block-printed and screen-printed Kalamkari. But at first sight, it is difficult to tell the difference. As a result, screen printed Kalamkari is being sold across the country from small markets to branded handloom stores.
Cost is also a big differentiator. Given the tedious process involving the making an original hand block-printed Kalamkari fabric, the cost is at least Rs 120-150 a metre. However, the same metre costs only Rs 50-70 for screen-printed fabric. As a result, people started opting for the brighter, cheaper fabric, which further made screen-printed Kalamkari a profitable business.
Srinivas claims that some of the businesses grew at a speed that even shocked auditors.
“There is always value if you use natural colours. This is the right form of art. If you use chemical colours, it may be cheaper, but the colour fades in two to three washes, while in the original fabric, the colour may slightly fade over the years but largely remains intact. But unfortunately for those who sell Kalamkari, it has only become about getting fabric to the market and quickly making money,” says one of the artisans at Srinivas' workshop who also teaches the art form.
Screen-printed Kalamkari sarees being laid out to dry
Preserving the original art form
In fact, Pedana Kalamkari also has the Geographical Indications (GI) tag. It was included in the Geographical Indications Registry (GIR) in 2012 under the GI of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act of 1999. Having a GI tag means that the art form is recognised as being from the region and the production processes of this art form are protected from being copied.
However, screen printing violates the very process that Pedana Kalamkari is associated with, thus violating the GI tag. Srinivas says that the GIR authorities have paid no heed to his repeated complaints and is not taking note of the violation.
“Along the coromandel coast, despite having a GI tag, fake ones are emerging. No one cares about the fact that the country's reputation is at stake due to fake art. My intention is to preserve the art, but it’s become a fight that’s one against many, and there is only so much I can do,” Srinivas adds.
Kosanam Chandrakantha Rao, who also owns a store that makes screen-printed Kalamkari which is exported to Hyderabad, says that there is good demand for it. “We were told about the GI tag violation and that screen-printed Kalamkari will be stopped. But this is normal, they’ll say that for a few days and then we go back to business as usual,” he adds, but declines to comment on the price difference between hand block-printed and screen-printed fabric.
Srinivas alleges that the government, too, pays no heed to Kalamkari and the woes of weavers in the region. “Being here is suicide for weavers. Kalamkari is only a means of advertisement for the government. Since independence, no politician from the Krishna district has enough knowledge about the art form,” he adds.
Governer's visit to P Srinivas' workshop
The chemical colours and screen-printed Kalamkari go beyond just affecting the original art form. Washing of screen-printed Kalamkari in the ponds is polluting the water. The chemicals used in the colours let out toxic effluents, which is contaminating the water table.
In the past too, the Krishna District Collector sent out a few notices to those using chemical colours, warning them of action. Srinivas, too, has complained about the washing of chemical colours in the canals, which is polluting the water.
“Villages such as Pedapulipaka and Sitarampuram are turning away Kalamkari makers who come to wash the cloth in their canals alleging that the chemical colours are polluting their water and causing the death of their cattle. They don’t even let us enter the village anymore,” Srinivas says.
But for Srinivas, it has become a fight of one against many. He says that despite the collector disallowing chemical colours, screen-printing Kalamkari units fought back and since they outnumber him, Srinivas is losing the battle in his own town.
“They are threatening me too, but I’m not scared. I feel like in this country, you might even have to put your life at risk to save a traditional art form. My own son got scared when they protested. But if we give up, what will we pass on to our future generations?” he asks.
As a result, while Srinivas’ father at the pinnacle of Kalamkari production had over 80 workers, today Srinivas hardly has 20 workers, some of whom he keeps losing to screen-printing’s promise of higher income.
“No one used to buy our stock because our prices were a minimum of Rs 100-120 a metre. Not everyone knows what the original was and would buy the cheaper ones,” Srinivas says.
As a result, Srinivas doesn’t have a market in India. He roughly produces 1000 metres a month, all of which he exports to the US, Netherlands, Japan and a few other European countries. He exports quilts and duvets to the US, scarfs and stoles to European countries and table covers to Japan.
Hand-block printed Kalamkari scarfs are exported to European countries
“Merchants in urban cities in India don't care about originality. They only look at what is the cheapest price they can get something for. Since the production cost for pure vegetable colours is very high, there is no market here. No one understands the original art form. All my time will go in trying to explain the original art form and I won’t have any time to do business. So facing competition in India and supplying here is of no value to me,” Srinivas adds.
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