Pearls Across Penna Trail – Day 1 (part 1) SriKalahasti Temple & Kalamkari Artists ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

The ‘Pearls Across Penna’ travellers in the corridor of the SriKalahasteeshwara Temple, Srikalahasti

Two groups converged from Chennai and Bangalore at SriKalahasti to what was the beginning of the ‘Pearls across Penna’ trail. The trail was named after the ‘Pennar’ River, which is a unique river in itself. It originates at the Nandi Hills, which I have written about in an earlier story.

We started this eventful trail at the Srikalahasti temple. I had visited the temple earlier this year in the month of February and it was such a delight that I could visit again. You can read about the wonderful story of the temple here. We had a fabulous darshan of this ancient temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and is one of the Pancha Bhoota Sthanas (temples celebrating Lord Shiva representing the five elements). Air or Vayu is the element at Srikalahasti and the Shiva linga is known as ‘Vayu Lingam’. This town is by the river Suvarnamukhi, in the Chitoor District.

The group that was led by Sri Venkatesh Narasimhan, IAS, (3rd from right), were definitely aficionados of handloom and handcrafted textiles. As the ex- Managing Director of Co-optex (The Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society), Narasimhan has been responsible for reviving many a weave and educating the masses about the wonderful handloom textile tradition of India. You can read about one such story about the Koorainadu weave here. Hence, we were delighted that he had arranged a meeting with leading artists of the Kalamkari technique that is synonymous with SriKalahasti.

A Kalamkari artist at work at the studio; in the backdrop a sketch of Padma Shri J. Gurappa Chetty; the wonder Kalamkari ‘Tree of Life’ on wall; and my saree too has Kalamkari!

I quote his words here from his Facebook post “When you enter the modest studio of ace Kalamkari artist Niranjan Jonnalagadda you aren’t aware of the fact that herein lies a preservation of a handcrafted legacy that’s passed on for close to 300 years. It is amazing to know that he’s the 6th generation Kalamkari artist whose legendary father J. Gurappa Chetty was a torch bearer and was awarded the Padma Shri for his remarkable achievements in the conservation of Kalamkari tradition in Srikalahasti. (For my readers outside India, the Padma awards are the highest civilian awards).

Kalamkari is a type of hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile produced in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Only natural dyes are used in Kalamkari, which involves, believe it or not, twenty-three steps!!

There are two distinctive styles of Kalamkari art in India – Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style. The Srikalahasti style of Kalamkari, where the “kalam” or pen is used for freehand drawing of the subject and filling in the colors, is entirely hand worked. This style flourished in temples centered on creating unique religious identities, appearing on scrolls, temple hangings, chariot banners as well as depictions of deities and scenes taken from the Hindu epics (e.g. Ramayana, Mahabharata and Purana). The style owes its present status to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who popularized the art as the first chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board.

Under medieval Islamic rule, the term Kalamkari was derived from the words “kalam”, which means “pen” in Telugu, and “kari”, which means craftmanship. This became popular under the patronage of the Golconda sultanate.

  • The first step in creating Kalamkari is steeping it in astringents and buffalo milk and then drying it under the sun.
  • Afterwards, the red, black, brown, and violet portions of the designs are outlined with a mordant and cloth are then placed in a bath of alizarin.
  • The next step is to cover the cloth, except for the parts to be dyed blue, in wax, and immerse the cloth in indigo dye.
  • The wax is then scraped off and the remaining areas are painted by hand, similar to Indonesian batik.

To create design contours, artists use a bamboo or date palm stick pointed at one end with a bundle of fine woolen rug waste attached to this pointed end to serve as the brush or pen. This pen is soaked in a mixture of jaggery and water; one by one these are applied, then the vegetable dyes are added.

Dyes for the cloth are obtained by extracting colors from various roots, leaves, and mineral salts of iron, tin, copper, and alum. Various effects are obtained by using cow dung, seeds, plants and crushed flowers to obtain natural dye. Along with buffalo milk, myrobalan is used in kalamkari. Myrobalan is also used to remove the odd smell of buffalo milk. The fixing agents available in the myrobalan can easily fix the dye or color of the textile while treating the fabric. Alum is used in making natural dyes and also while treating the fabric. Alum ensures the stability of the color in Kalamkari fabric.

Kalamkari specifically depicts epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata. However, there are recent applications of the Kalamkari technique to depict Buddha and Buddhist art forms. Recently many aesthetically good figures such as musical instruments, small animals, flowers, Buddha and few Hindu symbols, like swastika are also introduced to Kalamkari.

Niranjan Jonnalagadda is taking Kalamkari to greater heights and its heartening to see his daughter and grandchildren also practicing Kalamkari. He’s also creating a lot of value added products like bags , folders and purses to make this unique craft sustainable and relevant to our times.

His detailed explanation and showing us the craft being created will be etched in our memory for a long time.”

The genial and hospitable artist!

The mythical Gandaberunda motif made by the father, see below for the original piece

It was indeed an education, and here I would like to request patrons to please encourage these artisans and also not haggle over prices. What’s a trip without shopping and so our next stop at Srikalahasti was to visit the workshop ‘Bhanodaya Kalamkari’, an enterprise started in 2011, by Mrs. P. Padmavathy in 2011. She started with three employees and over the years the enterprise now employs nearly 30 people.

With Mrs. Padmavathy (extreme right)
Content after the shopping haul!

Acknowledgements: Venkatesh Narasimhan ( text), A. S. Diwakar (Pictures), Srilakshmi Dorairajulu (Pictures)

P.S: Do subscribe to follow this Sojourn across River Penna! And give the article a star if you liked it!

September 2022

3 thoughts on “Pearls Across Penna Trail – Day 1 (part 1) SriKalahasti Temple & Kalamkari Artists ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

  1. Pingback: Pearls Across Penna Trail – Day 1 (part 2) Venkatgiri Weaves and Venkatgiri Fort ©Sangeeta Venkatesh | sojourn-with-san

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