Lately, whenever I scroll through any of my social media timelines, I invariably see enticing images of stunning women draped elegantly in what I firmly believe is India’s answer to the timeless Western gowns – the gorgeous, unbeatable Saree. And, these days, what I notably spot in these posts, in many recently spurred Saree Groups and Saree blog – are Kalamkari Sarees.
To be honest, I initially didn’t know much about this ancient textile craft, carried on relentlessly in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh – with its origins traced to the Mughal era. Then, I started seeing Kalamkari sarees in huge doses on saree groups. I also see a plenty of this gorgeous art in salwar suits and lehenga designs!
The awesome ladies, like saree connoisseur Neha Sharma (left) and fashion-savvy advertising guru Falguni Vasavada Oza (right) in the image above, kept showcasing splendid Kalamkari creations – complete with their Gods’ inspired patterns, swirly vines and hand-paint style coloring – and well, I was stumped…and inspired.
Don’t rattle on, until you ‘know’ the things!
Until one day I dared to post my own picture in what I thought was a ‘Kalamkari’. And lo behold – I was caught – for trying to pass off an Ajrakh as Kalamkari – by an avid saree veteran. Believe me – I did it in complete innocence, for I didn’t know (till then) much about either.
Meanwhile, Ajrakh is also a lovely fabric art from Kutch. Ajrakh, by the way, also has Persian roots – the word when literally translated means Indigo/ blue – the all-pervading dye in this craft. More on Ajrakh/ Ajrak later!
Tryst with Kalamkari…
Well, once chagrined and chastened, I read up, and started deciphering Kalamkari better, and that’s when began my tryst with this enchanting craft. I could spot a Kalamkari – actually Qalamkari – easily. At the same time, we started seeing it flaunted by many A-class celebrities – not just as sarees, but also in scarves, blouses, Indian suits and Indo-western outfits!
It was official – Kalamkari – word that literally means ‘pen-craft’ – had made a well-deserved grand re-entrance to the mainstream. Popular Indian designers could now be seen creating ethnic kalamkari outfits and sarees. Some time ago, Sridevi was seen sporting a Sabyasachi designer saree – in stunning floral Kalamkari pattern. It was a half and half saree, and the Kalamkari effect was magical in this floral saree. Contemporary saree lover, gorgeous Vidya Balan is also spotted routinely in Kalamkari creations.
This once flailing art is back at the epicenter of happening fancy sarees, and this is extremely heartening. Here we see another two Bollywood divas in Kalamkari inspired blouses – which are a huge rage now. Deepika is as usual out-of-this world, as she pairs her net saree with a colorful, chic Kalamkari blouse, while Sridevi is wearing a Kalamkari style floral design blouse with embroidery in the image above.
Glorious Hand-made Textiles Heritage
Fom sarees to blouses, and even kurtas, palazzos, ethnic potlis, footwear and scarves – it is spelling its magic everywhere. The word Kalamkari or Qalamkari is made from two distinct usages – Persian word kalam or qalam that means pen and ‘kari’ that refers to art made by hand, or craftsmanship. When translated literally, Kalamkari means drawings or creations made from pen. However, today the ancient and beautiful craft of Kalamkari goes beyond any simple pen drawings.
Nonetheless, there are certain patterns or designs that are typical to the craft of Kalamkari – like the one you can see on super elegant saree-lover Olndrilla Banerjee’s saree border. These very motifs – many of which are like story-boards, depicting scenes from the epics of Mahabharata, Bhagvad Gita and Ramayana – indicate the history of this fabric craft.
Olndirilla’s saree pallu has the famous vines’ like Kalamkari design. While many hold that Kalamkari traveled to India, through our interactions and cultural exchanges with Persian and Mughal empires – and hence the typical floral creepers and vines designs, others firmly believe that this was originally a way of story-telling in villages of South India.
The latter belief is exemplified by the gorgeous God imagery, so typical of Kalamkari – as worn in one of the most popular Kalamkari saree designs by eminent professor Falguni Vasavada Oza above. Falguni is considered a fashion icon, amongst her peers, students and her fashion blog page followers. She loves silk sarees, handlooms and Kalamkari sarees – and owns an eclectic collection – like the stunning one on the right below, and also the self-designed plain black saree with Kalamkari border and matching blouse on left, which she wore for her recent birthday.
It’s said that storytellers travelled village to village with huge canvas rolls, painted with natural colors and dyes. These had storyboards, showing scenes from epics and cultural texts, and along-with classical dance forms like Kathakali, these stories were narrated, using Kalamkari canvas. Fascinating!!
Arduous Process of making a Kalamkari…
There are basically two ways original Kalamkari fabrics are made – using natural dyes with multiple rounds of soaking and dyeing – Machilipatanam style that involves printing using blocks – and the rarer, more arduous of the two – Srikalahasti style that involves pen or kalam made using bamboo sticks.
The printing that’s done in 3 to 4 stages also involves soaking of the base material (after 1st round of printing) in cow’s milk – stage is known as Milking. In some places, this stage is done using Ghee (clarified butter) or even Cow-dung! Kalamkari art is also seen on bedspreads, wall hangings and drapery material.
The more colors you see on a Kalamkari saree – like the one worn by gorgeous, glamorous Neha in the image above – the more time-consuming stages and soaks it has passed through. Neha is a young mom, who loves clothes and fashion. She is an ardent saree collector, and makes it a point to pair her sarees with out-of-this-world blouses and accessories. Here, she pairs her bright saree with a contrasting brocade blouse and ethnic juttis. We heart!
Even though, the customary patterns and traditional process for crafting Kalamkari is either of the aforementioned of two, the Kalamkari effect may also be achieved using modern modes of printing. Printed Kalamkari creations are not hand-made, and thus, are available in a wide range of fabrics and prices. Other innovative ways to achieve Kalamkari stories alive on fabrics involve embroidery and applique work.
Here is an example of the Kalamkari-inspired applique work. Unlike the ususal block printed or pen Kalamkari, the saree base is plain. Look, how stunning the applique work is on real-life saree lover Uma Ramesh’s bewitching blue saree. Uma, who defies age with her ethereal good looks, is an avid fan of Indian textiles and art-work.
Here is a popular variant of Kalamkari prints worn by the real-estate consultant and saree fan Olndrilla. She is a busy young working mom, yet she manages to collect and showcase sarees from all parts of India. This floral saree with Kalamkari prints is a break away from traditional Kalamkari – and yet looks very pretty.
I am sure – by now – you too are in love with this enchanting craft. You know what, until I knew things about Kalamkari – I didn’t even know, I actually had a Kalamkari saree, brought along by an uncle from one of his trips to some archaeological ruins in Andhra. Amazing! So, what are you waiting for – browse your very own saree wardrobe, and see what all you possess!
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