Handcrafting an uneasy elegy for Kalamkari

In the era of heavy mechanisation and synthetic products, how do we preserve a craft like Kalamakari?



When I told Bapa that I went to Machilipatnam, he said, it was under the Kings of Odisha once. Every time I tell him about our travels to different places, he will tell me something of its history, his knowledge dating back to a time before google and wiki.

And most of the time, I would not know those bits from history. And so, of course, I googled.

According to a history manual complied by Gordon Mackenzie in 1883, first mention of Machilipatnam in History was in connection with the construction of a mosque under Carnatic Rajas. In 1478, the army of Muhammad Shah Bahamani II captured Machilipatnam. In 1515, Krishna Devaraya defeated the Bahamani kings and put the port under the care of the Orissa Rajas. Bingo!

King of Golconda, Quli Qutb Shah captured the area from the Orissa Rajas and it became part of the Golconda kingdom for nearly half a century. The Portuguese were the earliest to establish base at Machilipatnam and the Dutch followed suit. The English entered only in 1611 and established a factory there.

Apparently, the primary product that was exported from the port was cloth weaved and dyed at villages in the hinterland. There were references of saltpetre (Potassium Nitrate), turmeric, spices and miscellaneous articles like spotted deer and waterfowl being exported from the port. The imports included all sorts of goods manufactured in England. There was a lot of demand for superfine scarlet and green coloured cloth. It was through this port that the diamonds purchased at Golconda were taken to England.

In 1686, the Emperor of Delhi defeated the dynasty of Golconda. The Dutch saw an opportunity to take possession of the port. The next year the East India Company declared war against Aurangzeb. In July that year his troops advanced as far as the fort at Kondapalli. The Dutch, English and French deserted the port town thereafter. Great Distress was reported in this part. There was an epidemic in the port town in 1687 and several Europeans died. The Dutch factory was damaged extensively by a huge storm on October 13, 1779. Nearly 20,000 people living in Machilipatnam and nearby villages were killed by the storm. (The Hindu)

Reading this, I remembered Khambhat (Cambay) in Gujarat, another port town which has lost its glory.

I tried to find more about Gordon Mackenzie, as one should know who has written the history to understand how its coloured (I am sure few decades from now, someone will do the same for the time we are living in and find out what got written by whom). It just didn’t exist on the internet.

So, when I was asked, would you like to come with me to see the Kalamkari process? How does one refuse an opportunity like that? Craft, craftspeople, rural landscape and train, a big yes!

One late evening, with sudden hail storm in Hyderabad, temperature came down by almost ten degrees, becoming cold and windy, we waited for our night train to Machilipatnam from Secunderabad railway station. Couple of times in the night, I felt that the train was not moving, but did not realise till morning that the train was actually four hours late. A journey of seven hours, and a delay of four.

Then lovely kindness happened. When we were trying to reach a hotel, after we crossed Vijaywada, the only other passenger in that cubicle, a woman, asked us, “You are like my daughters, why don’t you come with me, freshen up and go on your work. Why do you need a hotel since you do not want to stay the night?” Then she told us she was going home to meet her elderly parents who live with her sister’s family.

And so we went to her house. The day had began pleasantly.

The basics first. There are two kinds of Kalamkari. One, drawn with a pen, kalam-kari. Currently this happens only in Srikalahasti. The motifs are mostly large birds, trees, flowers and leaf. The second blocks are used to print on fabric. Both use natural dyes. Pedna, where we went, is famous for the block printed Kalamkari.kalamkari stamp


Our first stop was at the supplier to Kriti Social Initiative. When i saw the stacks and stacks of Kalamkari fabric, I felt like a kid in a candy store! Wanting to understand more, we requested the supplier to explain to us the entire process. We were told that the fabric goes through eight steps before it lands up in shops.

Several leaves, barks, fruits play a major role in the making of this fabric. Cow dung is used for natural bleaching of the fabric, powered seeds of amla (Phyllanthus emblica, gooseberry), nutmeg (Jatika, Myristica fragrans) leaves while boiling the fabric, Harad/ Harida (Teriminalia chebula) and dried pomegranate peels added while boiling the fabric. The two most important factors in our work he said, are the sun and water (it had poured for two hours that very morning).

Almost with all crafts, the association with the natural world is so evident. Dyes, leaves, barks, skin all have a role to play.

drying kambari

The workspace was a shed in a large compound where several, mostly men, were involved in the process of production. Similar to what one sees of ikat weavers where under a master craftsman many of the pre loom processes are done before it lands up at the weaver’s house. These sheds of course could do with lot of improvements considering the fact that few safety measures were in place, with not many of the workers wearing gloves or any protection when dyeing or working close to a fire.

Having had some time to kill, we went around the area. Several pandals were being prepared in anticipation of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. We were near Kapal doddi, a village famous for its sarees. It was here that we saw a line of huts on the road side and stopped. We got down and spoke to the women who happened to be weavers, earning just about a hundred rupees a day, living in tiny huts that are just big enough to house the loom. They cooked food outside under a makeshift shed and slept inside on the floor.

An aspect of traditional livelihoods where children are involved was in the process of Kalamkari printing. They learn this way, but should they missing school for the same? Or is it just a matter of cheap labour? Can these families afford to send them to school? How relevant would it be to have a Vocational education and training plan for our country, a balance of education and skills. Here is an article by Kailash Satyarthi explaining how child labour actually perpetuates poverty.


A nice long auto journey with good roads, good conversations, a nice sunset and kind weather after the rains signalled our return home back to Machlipatnam station.

I felt a certain discomfort when I returned that I had experienced in other places as well. It was the issue of plagiarism. I have often seen that once a design works, whether its block printing, weaves or patterns of ready to wear clothes, they get instantly copied. A reason why they are copied is probably because most of these exquisite creations are unaffordable to most. Which raises the question, how exclusive should these be? Is creative art one individual’s creation or is it the result of many processes, inspirations and creative ways of seeing?

Is it a good thing, in the current trend of heavy mechanisation and synthetic, plastic products, which have hugely damaging impact on the environment; is it such a bad thing if greener initiatives are copied? If it results in its propagation?

I don’t know. I still wonder how much good or bad comes out of it.

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Anuradha has worked in the development sector in India for over twenty years on natural resource management, capacity building and rural livelihoods. She has also worked in emergency relief situations on some of India’s worst disasters. Anuradha is the recipient of two fellowships, the British Council-supported Chevening Scholarship to attended a course on ‘Environmental Management and Sustain... more


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Anuradha has worked in the development sector in India for over twenty years on natural resource management, capacity building and rural livelihoods. She has also worked in emergency relief situations on some of India’s worst disasters. Anuradha is the recipient of two fellowships, the British Council-supported Chevening Scholarship to attended a course on ‘Environmental Management and Sustain... more

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