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Kalamkari refers to the Indian craft of painting Natural Dyes on cotton or silk fabric using a bamboo pen. The name Kalamkari translates as pen (kalam) work (kari) in Hindi/Urdu, and was most likely passed on to the printing communities on the Coramandel coast of south east India by Persian traders in the 10th century. The Portuguese called this form of fabric decoration Pintado, the Dutch called it Sitz, while the British referred to it as chintz.

Kalamkari Styles

There are two major centres of Kalamkari, Kalahasti (80 miles north of Chennai) and Masulipatnam (200 miles east of Hyderabad). Although craftsmen in both centres use very similar techniques, the distinctive motifs set them apart.

Masulipatnam style of painting usually has delicate Persian motifs like trees, creepers, flowers and leaves. There's a definite Dutch influence on it which may be traced back to the the nineteenth century when there was great demand for Kalamkari from Europe. This style of Kalamkari was mainly done on bed covers, curtains and also garments.

Kalahasti style of painting has more religious themes, as it flourished under the patronage of temples. Temple priests commissioned scrolls and wall hangings illustrated with episodes from the Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana. Another characteristic of this style is that the painting is usually done in panels, with a script running along the border.


The Kalamkari art of painting makes extensive use of Indigo a natural dye that requires the relatively more laborious process of resist dyeing. In tandem, it uses Block Printing Techniques and/or painting. Also, unlike other styles of painting, Kalamkari painting demands a lot of treatment before and after the painting is completed on the cotton fabric. Hence Kalamkari is a laborious and time consuming process.

First the cloth bleached naturally in two steps. It is immersed in a solution of goat or cow dung for some time, and then left in the sun for a few days.

Then, it is painted with alum and treated with milk to prevent the colour from spreading in the next step.

Using iron acetate solution (dipped in a brush-pen in Kalahasti, and wooden blocks in Masulipatnam), the design is outlined and solid spaces filled.

All the areas in the design meant to be red are painted (in Kalahasti) or printed (in Masulipatnam) over with the alum solution as a mordant (a substance that fixes the natural dye on the material).

The mordant is allowed to soak into the cloth for at least 24 hours before it is washed in running water.

Then the cloth is dyed red with madder, a plant-based natural dye.

All the portions in the design that are not to be dyed blue are covered with wax. The waxed cloth is immersed in Indigo solution (in Srikalahasti, the blue is painted with the wooden pen). The wax is removed by boiling the cloth in water.

The yellow (made from pomegranate seeds or mango bark) is painted on to produce yellow and green.

The cloth is finally washed again and dried before the final colours emerge.

The treatment of the cloth and the quality of the mordant both determine the lustre of the final colours.

Kalamkari Today

Kalamkari is now practiced by a number of small families in and around the old fishing port of Masulipatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The intricate designs, elaborate borders and understanding of balanced composition have made Kalamkari one of the most widely imitated styles of Indian printing.

A stylish range of home d├ęcor products made with Kalamkari is available today -- wall hangings, bedcovers, cushion covers, even rugs and theatre backdrops. Products for personal use made with Kalamkari textiles include saris, dress materials, stoles

Learn Kalamkari

The Kalakshetra Foundation started a Kalamkari Unit in 1978 to revive this age old craft. The Unit teaches the techniques of Kalamkari to artisans as well as to people interested in learning the craft as a hobby.

Contact Kalakshetra Foundation

Tiruvanmiyur, Chennai -- 600 041

To buy authentic Kalamkari products online, go to Lepakshi Emporium and Fabindia


  • The Art of Kalamkari
  • Kalamkari
  • Kalamkari Paintings

See Also