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Kalamkari Art: Elegance at an expense

BY Nivedita Menezes | 21-May-2020
Kalamkari, the intricate print that was once naturally dyed and manually handblocked, is witnessing a rapid change in its production, which comes at the cost of the artistes’ health.

Kalamkari Art: Elegance at an expense
An artiste carefully fills the gaps with a twig dipped natural dye. Credits: Nivedita Menezes
The quaint village of Pedana in Andhra Pradesh, India resonates with light ‘thuds’, and it’s not long until one finds a thatched roof housing rows of men and women of varied age groups, mechanically dipping square-sized wooden chunks into dye and gently pressing it onto hand spun cloth, creating magical designs in a matter of minutes. Located 68 kilometres east of Vijaywada, in Andhra Pradesh, India this region is the largest producer of kalamkari, specifically known as the Machilipatnam style.

A 3000-year-old technique, this print holds a different charm from other Indian designs – ikat, zari, jacquard, ajrakh – for the inspiration of this art form stems from nature and mythology. Flowers, leaves, birds and trees are recurring patterns across the board, if not of portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. Tagged with a geographical indication (GI), this location specific piece of heritage has been replaced by modernised tools over the last few years – chemical dyes and the adoption of screen prints are the new means to producing kalamkari.

Initially, dyes were extracted through natural components – from vegetable peels, roots and bark to jaggery – until the cost-effective implementation of chemical colours were used. According to Koteshwar Rao, owner of Jhansi Kalamkari, “Today, we prefer using artificial dyes over the natural method. The main reason is that it is less time consuming and lasts longer. There is barely any difference between the two in terms of output, but the labour that goes into making the natural one is tedious,” as he shifted his attention to the customers lined up outside his store.

On the other hand, 39-year-old Pitambar Rao, a shop manager and kalamkari whizz provided insights on the four ways to dye cloth. “Direct, Napthol, Vat and Chemical dyes. Vat colouring is used for export purposes, as it has a lower percentage of toxicity. Indian skin can accommodate almost every chemical colour, but that’s not the case with a foreigner,” he added.

An informal mention, this showed that the greed for quicker production comes at a cost of the customer’s health. Although Indian skin may be accustomed to synthetic materials, one must take note of the harsh conditions the cloth is dyed in. R Ramakrishna, squeezing the excess liquid off the freshly coloured bundle, said, “Around 32 kilograms of cloth are dyed every day. With time, our hands have gotten used to the boiling temperature and caustic soda, it doesn’t sting anymore.” With no protection in the form of gloves or masks and only a vest to protect him from the direct heat, the abject state of dexters continues to prevail.

As kalamkari observes an evolution in terms of colours, the next issue is of screen printing vis-a-vis hand block usage. Six-metre-long sarees are ready for the final wash in seconds, as pairs alternate with three-foot frames pushing paint back and forth on outspread cloth. As producers have shifted to this lightning speed method, the traditional art of kalamkari is at stake.

“The screen printing method is used for mass production, it’s cheaper and requires less manpower,” said the local Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency leader, Venkateshamma, who is also a weaver. Initiated into the profession since childhood, she added, “There is hardly any skill to be perfected in this method in comparison to hand block kalamkari,” as she her tugged coloured thread, weaving it into a new piece of cloth.

Apart from capsizing the handblock industry, this centre of screen printing also employed 16-year-old Raghu, a tenth grade student. Claiming that he was on holiday, his small palms continued to toil long hours, sometimes for more than seven in a day. The employees’ skin has “adjusted” to this work setting, they collectively responded.

A middle ground between tradition and commercialization still lays on an unsteady footing, and the villagers of Pedana in Andhra Pradesh, India pay a hefty price for a cloth they often cannot afford.