In this interview J. Niranjan talks about the history, materials and techniques of kalamkari
J. Niranjan begins by telling us that kalamkari artists traditionally work with themes derived from narratives such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavatham. In the 15th century, all temple hangings were made this way. While today this style of work is widely known as kalamkari, it was originally called vrathapani. “Vratha” means writing, “pani” means work—vrathapani is literally ‘writing work.’ In Srikalahasti there is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva where kalamkaris have traditionally been hung. For making these hangings, kalamkari artists would take a cloth approximately five metres in length and write and draw on it. So for example, in this way they could have a complete work with the story of Lord Shiva on it. People who may not know how to read and write would come to the temple and were able to easily identify the overall story through the figures. In terms of the themes, in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Dutch came to this region, some floral designs were introduced within the repertoire in accordance with their taste. Even in the temples from the 2nd century, they have a unique “tree of life” motif which has branches, trees and flowers. Niranjan says that while the kalamkari artists are inspired by that motif, they have also changed the flowers according to the taste of their local clientele. Today the “tree of life” motif appears on dresses and home furnishings.
Elaborating upon the uniqueness of the kalamkari tradition, Niranjan points out that not only are these textiles produced in a specific way but the art form even gets its name from its distinctive process. Furthermore, he highlights that this is a textile art and its practice is limited to the medium of cloth—it is chintz. To the kalamkari artists ‘chintz’ means a very intricate design on cloth. So in essence, kalamkari may be defined as a design on fabric made with natural colours, drawn by hand.
In terms of styles and processes, Niranjan is proud to state that Kalamkari artists have held on to their traditions. He stresses upon the fact that they prefer preparing painting the traditional way. For example, in the traditional method the cloth has to be treated with milk and myrobalan. The artists can technically find ways of working without myrobalan and milk, but then that would mean breaking with tradition, which they are not very keen on.
In terms of colourfastness, if one sees any kalamkari piece, even the old ones that are now found at museums, the colours look fresh and vibrant even after all these years. Niranjan also mentions that museums such as the Victoria and Albert (London) have about 50- 60 paintings made by his grandfather and great-grandfather in their collections. The condition of these pieces is still very good.
Making kalamkari is a time consuming process. For example, Niranjan explains that a fine painting on one metre cloth where there are five figures in the composition—Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and others, will take around one week to complete. In the case that a complete Suryat Ramayana needs to be made on a one metre piece, a lot of intricate work needs to be done and it will take more than a month to complete. Niranjan says that in this way, they can calculate the cost according to how intricate the design is and how much time is needed to finish it.
We went on to discuss whether specific conditions in the region differentiate this kalamkari work from others. Niranjan talks about how kalamkari work done in Kalahasti, Machilipatnam or other parts of the Coromandel Coast was possible due to the rich natural resources of the region. In fact, he says that India as a whole is very rich in natural resources which are utilised in processes such as kalamkari making. He suggests that when one sees natural dyes being used one can be sure that there is a water body nearby that makes this possible. The process of kalamkari is heavily dependent on flowing water, which should ideally have a pH level of 7.5, for the best effect when dyeing with natural colours. If the water is polluted, the pH rises to 10. The Kalahasti River has very clean water and it is very good for colours. Similarly, in Machilipatnam, there is Krishna River.
Niranjan further specifies that while in Srikalahasti, they mainly make kalamkaris related to religious themes, they also depict some of the cultural activities that are unique to this area. For example the artists can also depict festivals called jatra with figures on large panels. Recently, Niranjan says that he has been trying to work with different types of themes to capture his community’s traditions visually for the future generations. For this he is going to study some local games, stories and festivals to try and include them in his kalamkaris.
Niranjan also had the opportunity to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum where he saw his grandfather’s and great grandfather’s paintings. These works had scenes from Bhagavatam, Mahabharata and Ramayana rendered with very fine lines. He says that when he saw those paintings, he was really shocked to see such fine work! Now he has incorporated those lines in his own work after doing a lot of research on the techniques. At the same time, at the Museums he visited, he saw some textiles with the ‘tree of life’ motifs which were made in the Coromandel Coast. In these works the artists had used a variety of white lines and colours that Niranjan was not familiar with. So these have also inspired him and have been incorporated in his work today.
In terms of stylistic differences, Niranjan clarifies that each artist has a unique style of making kalamkari. “…it is just like handwriting” he says. Everyone’s writing style is different. So what we see in the works of previous generations is their individual style. Having said that though, he points out that overall their unique line work does stand out. When Niranjan teaches kalamkari, he primarily tries to communicate the fact that this is a traditional art that is part of Indian heritage and we have to find ways of keeping it alive. To ensure this, he first introduces his students to traditional motifs. For example, there is “pilli adugu” or cat’s footsteps, “convora,” which has an arrow like shape and “kamalam” which is lotus. Also he teaches them how to make the traditional mudras (symbolic hand gestures). Once they have mastered the traditional style, they can add other motifs according to the taste of the customers. This way the tradition is maintained but also there is a market for the work. He admits thought that this is a challenge but one has to cater to customers — their taste has to be understood and at the same time the artist needs to introduce them to traditional styles. He also mentions that if overall the artists do this right, they can manage easily— maintain traditions as well as find a market for their art.
When asked how his work has been received around the world he says that he has had the opportunity to visit about seven countries where he has also given live demonstrations. Everywhere, his art was well received.