In this interview, the brothers K. Gangadhar and K. Narsaiah who are makers of woodblocks for printing in Pedana, near Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh, share their perspective on the history, transformation and current practices of the art of kalamkari.
The following is an excerpt from the English translation of the interview which was originally conducted in Telugu and Hindi.
Question (Q): How many generations of your family have been involved in block-making? Do the other block-makers in your workshop also belong to your family?
K.Narsaiah (N): The workers do not belong to the family. I learnt the technique from my elder brother K Gangadhar. The craft has been handed down to us by previous generations. The workers are locals, and we have invested time to train them in this job. They come from varied backgrounds and work here on a daily basis.
Q: What kind of blocks do you make? Do you still make blocks with figurative designs like the ones used for making palampores in the 18th century?
N: Blocks are made according to traditional designs and also what the market demands. Elaborate works (narrative scenes) with figures were discontinued a long time ago. It takes a long time to make these and in order to compete with serigraphy prints and other printing technologies, we have had to speed up production. These hangings (palampores) were made a long time ago when there was a different kind of connoisseurship that supported such work. Recently though we have made a few figurative blocks with butterflies, lions (from comic sources) and even a boy (influenced from cartoon characters). Usually we have some figurative blocks with camels, dancing girls etc.
(To K.Gangadhar) Q: When did you start this work?
K.Gangadhar (G): I started in 1976, my uncle K. Narasimha Rao (father’s brother) taught me the various techniques involved. My uncle worked with wood and brass as well. He was an expert. My father didn’t know these processes. In Andhra Pradesh today, very few people are working in the field of block-making. We are facing competition from serigraphy prints and other machine-made textiles. Compared to them, this (block-printed cloth) takes more time to get done…printing and washing several times…those things can’t be done in a day or two. In the workshop, I used to train the other people in this technique before they started working here. I won the National Award for my work in 2002.
Q: Congratulations! So, what is the major source of inspiration for your designs?
G: I bought this book around twenty years ago in Mumbai when I was there for some work (Textile Arts of India: Kokyo Hatanaka Collection, ed, Kyoto Shoin, Super Book House). I was flipping through the pages, and suddenly saw the name of Machilipatnam beneath an image. That kind of textile is not being made today. But we revived a variety of old designs from the book. Even now I travel very frequently. I have clients in Australia and was there last year. They liked my work and showed it to a designer from Pakistan. Currently, I am working on that order.
Q: Are there any special requirements when you work with people from other parts of the world? Do they suggest any improvisations?
G: They do not. They mainly want these traditional designs and do not ask us to diverge from our traditional practice.
Q: Did any of your ancestors work on any temple carvings? Or have you ever come across any commissions for temples?
G: No, we belong to a different community. Traditionally, a different caste does that work. For the temple wood carvings, the longitudinal section of the wood is used. But, for the blocks, the cross section of the wood is needed. So these two processes are different. The workers and the tools are also different. Recently we have started working on a unique project. It’s a collaborative work with a designer. The same wooden blocks of printing, are being used in other contexts, for other purposes. The printing technique is very old and was first introduced by the rangrez (dyers) community.
Q: So you feel the same technique is still continuing? Did you try to incorporate something new?
G: The technique of colouring, washing and printing is the same. Mostly vegetable colours are used, but for the gold and silver hues, synthetic colours are preferred. We are experimenting with the prints on mangalgiri and other cotton cloths, where some designs are already woven. The products are gaining popularity as dress materials for kurtas, kamiz and dupattas.