The art of Kalamkari flourished in temple towns along the eastern coast of Andhra Pradesh. With the decline of temples and patronage from royal families the art declined as well. It was in the temple town of Kalahasti near Tirupathi that, during the 1950s that this art was propagated. There were only two artists left who knew the Kalamkari tradition. But there was no one to pass it down to. With help coming in, a training school was started in the village. The present generation of artists and students has recovered the tradition of Kalamkari and are infusing the art with individual styles. The discovery of a resist-dyed piece of cloth on a silver vase at the ancient site of Harappa confirms that the tradition of Kalamkari is very old. Even the ancient Buddhist Chaitya Viharas were decorated with Kalamkari cloth.
The Srikalahasthi Kalamkari practiced in Srikalahasti typically feature Hindu stories, and the images are often identified with text in Telugu, the regional language. Temples were a major inspiration in the Srikalahasti Kalamkari paintings. The art flourished under the patronage of the temples with their demands for hangings with strong figurative and narrative components. This specialisation in figurative work continues till today. Kalamkari is as much a craft as it is an art. The laborious process involved with each painting takes around 40 days (the designing takes about four days and the entire process of painting takes around 30-35 days) depending on the climatic conditions. Most of the raw materials are gathered from forests and processed by traditional methods.
The art was exclusive to cotton fabric. The laborious process involved with each painting takes around 40 days (the designing takes about four days and the entire process of painting takes around 30-35 days) depending on the climatic conditions. Most of the raw materials are gathered from forests and processed by traditional methods.
In the 17th century, Kalamkari paintings were exported to Iran, Burma, the Persian Gulf, Maldives and Malacca. The craft gained immense popularity in the 18th century throughout Europe, with the fabric being used as draperies and bedspreads. The Kalamkari floral and vegetable designs were in great demand, in particular the motif known as the 'Tree of Life'. These fabrics were made into dresses, skirts and jackets and were also used as large wall hangings.
Today, there are several groups of Kalamkari artisans in Kalahasti including one of the co-operatives of Kalamkari artisans, which has worked with a non-government organisation and the Crafts Council of India to bring Kalahasti Kalamkari to the forefront. The former has been instrumental in changing the monochrome red in the wall hangings to a more diverse color palette. New themes such as stories from the Panchatantra were also introduced in addition to the conventional religious depictions.
As mentioned earlier, the themes adopted for the Srikalahasthi designs are from the Puranas or epics. 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.
These stories are depicted in the form of a series of horizontal panels with the script running through with the more important incidents receiving a larger layout. At times the image of a particular god or goddess with the appropriate vahana (vehicle) is depicted. To a large extent colors are used symbolically; blue is associated with deities, red with demons, Hanuman is depicted in green and so on. Yellow is used for female body color and also to simulate gold ornaments. Animals and geometrical designs are traced in black against a white background. The motifs used in the decorative borders are highly conventionalized. These include different forms of the lotus flower, the cart wheel, parrots, an interlacing pattern of leaves and flowers and the cat's paw.
The practitioners of Srikalahasthi Kalamkari are of producer groups that mainly reside in and around Srikalahasti, Ilaganuru, Kapugunneru, Kannali, Kuppam, Gundelugumta and Panagalu.