Kalamkari - art on textile

As part of my visits to India in the past few years, I have tried to travel to places renowned for their unique textiles.  These mini trips are doubly fun for me: I often get a few of my childhood friends to come with me, and I get to  “shop” for fabrics to design Mayil scarves.

visiting Sri Kalahasti Sivan koil

My most recent trip was to Sri Kalahasti of the kalamkari fame. Kalamakari is a ancient art form of hand drawing and painting on cotton fabric.  The word kalamkari originates from Persian, where kalam means pen and kari means craft. The art is more than 3000 years old. Sri Kalahasti is in Andhra Pradesh, about a 2-3 hour drive from Chennai off the Calcutta highway. It is famous for its Sivan Koil (temple) and hand painted cloths with temple themes. Motifs of Indian gods and goddesses, animals, birds, trees, and vines are hand painted on cotton or silk fabrics. The process is performed with all natural dyes.

vine motifs on a kalamkari scarf

There are many steps to making a kalamkari design. Artists first stiffen the raw cotton cloth (gadda) by soaking in buffalo milk to make it more absorbent to dyes. This unfortunately does leave an odor of raw milk in the fabric, but I’ve found the smell can be removed by soaking the cloth in vinegar.

The illustrator then uses a pointed bamboo stick to hand draw the motifs, using fermented jaggery (raw sugar)  to leave black outlines. The drawings are then filled with different dye colors, and are washed in the river and dried in the sun.


Here are pictures - before and after - of a classic kalamkari Mayil duo.


I bought lots of kalamkari fabric to design scarves. Here below is a blue scarf with vine and flower motifs.


And check out this kalamkari goddess Lakshmi painting which am sure will look beautiful once framed.       

Interestingly, there is another common style of kalamkari art made in the ancient city Masulipatnam, also in Andhra Pradesh. Here the fabric is block printed instead of hand painted – this is definitely a place on my list to visit next time!

Here’s a video I made of this artistic process

Check out Mayil’s kalamkari collection and wear a piece of hand drawn and hand painted art today!