In his twelve-year journey across the Mughal Empire, the French physician François Bernier stopped at Akbar’s royal tent to describe it as being “covered outside with strong and coarse red cloth but the inside is lined with beautiful hand-painted chintz, manufactured for the purpose at Maslipatam.” His “Travels in the Moghul Empire AD 1656 – 1668” also mentions that the “superior colours of the Maslipatam chittes or cloths, painted by the hand, whose freshness seems to improve by washing, are also ascribed to the water peculiar to that town.”
Chintz, as the British traders christened it, was the pattern meticulously painted on cotton fabric with a bamboo pen. The Portuguese called it pintado; the Dutch called it sitz. In Machilipatnam, the coastal town in present-day Andhra Pradesh that Bernier refers to in his accounts, it’s commonly known as kalamkari, a Persian word denoting a pen (kalam) and work (kari). The very nature of its globetrotting names suggests that there is something more to this celebrated textile art.
More than 350 years after Bernier’s veneration, there have been but few significant changes in the manner of making kalamkari textiles. Natural dyes, elaborate motifs of flora and fauna, and intricate borders, similar to the ones that graced Persian durbars in the 16th century, continue to flourish. On the other hand, the most conspicuous adaptation is the shift from slow inking to swift blockprinting, a consequence of a mass demand for kalamkari products across Machilipatnam’s medieval trade routes .
To take a closer look at Machilipatnam’s famed offering to the world, we travelled to Polavaram, a village about 20 kilometers from the main town, to meet P M Eswardu Garu, a sexagenarian kalamkari artist. In the precincts of the workshop, a myrobalan tree, the fruits of which are used as a fixing agent, stands tall near a shed. Handcrafted blocks are piled up in various corners, with some of the less popular ones covered in cobwebs. There is a cheeky Chhota Bheem, a chevron cut and a luxurious Mughlai floral pattern among the heaps of blocks.
The quotidian, the popular and the rare – all find their manifestations in these blocks.
Interspersed with the rhythmic thump-thumping of blocks in the background, Eswardu patiently demonstrates the various stages of kalamkari blockprinting and its utter dependence on its surrounding natural environment and different groups of local labourers and artisans.
One of the main reasons for kalamkari’s development in Machilipatnam, Eswardu says, is the prevalence of minerals in the river waters here. Cloth is hauled to Anantaipet, where ninety percent of the population is dhobis (washermen), who bleach cloth in a knee-deep natural pond. There is no need for a chlorine-based bleach therefore. “There are geographical advantages because of the location of this craft,” comments Eswardu, his words ringing true of Bernier’s observation on Machilipatnam’s alchemic waters. When it comes to this textile art, it almost seems that time stands still.
A walking textbook of kalamkari history, Eswardu was formerly a saree weaver before migrating to blockprinting almost four decades ago. His father, also a weaver and artist, travelled around Machilipatnam with handloom products that needed kalamkari prints. Eventually, he teamed up with a Kapu blockprinter (a community traditionally known to practise kalamkari blockprinting), and with a modest set of four tables, set up a workshop. The blockprinter stayed with the family for a year, imparting his techniques, and Eswardu’s father salvaged some idle blocks to start business with.
In the circulatory system of kalamkari production and trade, Machilipatnam is its pulsating heart. Eswardu talks about raw materials that gather here from across the country – blocks from the neighbouring village Pedana and indigo bricks from Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu. As in those days, finished products are shipped to centres across the world. Seated in his courtyard, with sepia-tinted kalamkari textiles hung to dry, Eswardu speaks of Mughal tents, Persian courts and British shirts made of kalamkari. While the kalamkari might be a canvas of global imprints, it was made for anywhere but its hometown. The sight of one of Eswardu’s staff wearing a kalamkari lungi is a rarity. “Kalamkari has always had the influence of people outside and never the people inside. It was not made for the people of Machilipatnam. It was a trade item,” he says.
As Eswardu unravels a roll of cloth bearing an intricately wrought floral motif, it is hard to believe that there was once a time when kalamkari production declined due to mechanized goods’ production. The beige-ness of the cotton from the myrobalan nut, the characteristic brick redness from chawal kodi, muted yellows from pomegranate flowers, and indigo bricks for the earthy blues – Eswardu’s understated kalamkari piece is a pastoral in the making. There are no synthetic pinks and flashy reds. Thanks to efforts on the part of the Indian Government and the Geographical Indication Registry, now every thump of a block and every aspect of a print are safeguarded and promoted.
But Eswardu is optimistic that kalamkari is under no threat of extinction. There are those who fall prey to cheap quality and practise kalamkari screenprinting, and such craftspeople meet the ire of this veteran artist. He states that the real concern, however, are the lack of signature styles and strong marketing – aspects that high-end designers have mastered – and hints at the age old tug-of-war between “art” and “craft”. Despite these concerns, one thing is certain: that from a small town to the powerful empires, from royal tents to pillow covers, from craft to art, kalamkari adapts, survives and sustains and stays original, always.
Mr. Eswarudu can be contacted at www.eswarudukalamkari.in