Once upon a time in ancient India, troupes of nomadic artists and storytellers (chitrakars) roved from village to village telling stories of great heroes from the Hindu mythology. They spoke of battles lost and won, demons slain and gods appeased. They extracted dyes from plants on the spot and used them to illustrate their accounts onto large bolts of canvas. This is the earliest example of what we know today as Kalamkari art. Kalamkari art can be traced as far back as 3000 BCE and samples of it have been found at Indus Valley’s archaeological sites.
In Persian, Kalam means pen and Kari means craftsmanship. Kalamkari literally refers to the artistry of the pen. It originated and thrived in southern India, where the titular pen was a tamarind stick. The Persian christening of the art we know as Kalamkari today is thanks to the Mughals, who were great fans of it.
What makes Kalamkari a heritage piece of craft cherished worldwide? Well, it’s not just one thing. It’s the combination of its unique, intricate designs brimming with mythical references and stories. It’s the slow, vigorous and tedious dyeing process that’s done only using natural dyes and traditional methods. It’s the stunning artistry of the master craftsman wielding the pen (kalam). Creating a piece of Kalamkari cloth can take anything between 20-40 days.
The cotton fabric which is going to be used for kalamkari is treated with naturally occurring solutions which helps it achieve a uniform, off-white colour. What follows are multiple stages of immersion in natural concoctions, washing, sun-drying. Once the fabric is deemed ready for painting, the initial sketches are done using a charcoal quill. Post this, natural dyes are used to fill in the drawings.
Kalamkari’s colours mirror India’s naturally occurring flora and fauna as the dyes are traditionally sourced from local plants – indigo, mustard, rust, black, green, ochre, etc. There’s no use of chemicals or artificial supplements at any stage. Once the illustrations are complete and the colours sealed in, there’s another few stages of expert washing and drying. Expert because the wrong techniques could irreversibly damage the designs. All in all, creating a kalamkari fabric requires 17 careful stages from preparing the cloth to the final washing after which it’ll be ready for use.
In recent years, kalamkari art has fended off serious foes in the form of power looms and machine printed textiles. But the skill and vision of the artists have held strong in the face of cheap tech knock-offs, proving that in some cases old really is gold. Kalamkari fabrics are used to make sarees, scarfs, stoles, temple offerings to deities and household furnishings.
At Pure Mitti we are mindful of the extreme skill and craftsmanship that’s been invested into each and every inch of a beautiful and authentic kalamkari fabric. We see history and legacy of thousands of years each time we behold one such beauty and we are loathe to see it go to waste. So we salvage kalamkari strips that end up on the cutting floor of textile factories and divert them from the landfill by creating a beautiful range of bags.
Every time we see images of our customers and patrons slinging on these bags on their way to work or a grocery run, we feel a glow of pride at preventing waste, promoting slow fashion and helping this gorgeous art form thrive in the 21st century on the opposite end of the world from where it was once conceived – thousands of years ago.
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