K Lakshmi Narayan showing a Kalamkari painting with a scene from a royal procession at his residence and workshop in Sikalnayakanpet, Thiruppanandal in Tamil Nadu. Image: Veidehi Gite
At this home-run workshop spanning two floors, the walls whisper tales of ancient artistic brilliance. The first room on the ground floor is a display of finished and unfinished paintings. In this room, Karuppur Kalamkari paintings on cotton fabric are piled up against the wall, like a stack of colourful dreams. The air is filled with the smell of paint, and bamboo and echam sticks stand guard in a green basket, ready to dance across the canvas. This is the home of R Krishnamurthy, living craft treasure and state awardee, and his son K Lakshmi Narayan, Kalanithi and state awardee doctorate in kalamkari.
India is a land rich in ancient art forms, one of which is the timeless beauty of Kalamkari. This art form has been practised in India for over 5,000 years and there are three main styles: Srikalahasthi and Machilipatnam from Andhra Pradesh, and Karuppur from Tamil Nadu. Srikalahasthi features freehand sketches of Hindu mythological scenes. Machilipatnam is influenced by Islamic motifs and uses block printing techniques. What sets Tamil Nadu’s Karuppur Kalamkari apart is its exclusive use of natural vegetable dyes and hand painting, making it an eco-friendly and sustainable approach to art and fashion.
“We are the only family in Tamil Nadu that uses traditional hand-painting techniques and natural dyes to create authentic Karuppur Kalamkari paintings. Unlike others, we do not use screen printing or block printing,” says K Lakshmi Narayan, the master artisan and owner of the Kalamkari House.
In a world where mass production and instant gratification reign supreme, R Krishnamurthy and K Lakshmi Narayan serve as a powerful reminder of the value of patience and the pursuit of excellence. Through their skilled hands and creative minds, these artisans breathe life into ancient techniques, reviving art forms that might otherwise have been lost to the annals of time. This family has been in this business for over 1000 years, since the time of the Chola dynasty, with currently the 12th generation taking the legacy forward. Their work serves as a bridge between the past and the present, allowing us to appreciate the ingenuity of our ancestors while also inspiring the present generation to carry the torch forward.
On the upper floor, one of the workers, artist Abirami is sitting on the floor, skilfully wielding her brushes, breathing life into kalamkari paintings. With every delicate stroke, she is transforming mere pigments into masterpieces. Joining her are Meera Devi, Kamatehi, Sumathi, Mahalaxmi, Chithra, Santhi and seven others. Together, their brushes dance upon their canvases, telling stories that only the heart could truly comprehend. Also read: Sacred simplicity and the Tamizh way of life
“Dating back to the 8th century, tracing its origins back to the Chola dynasty, Karuppur Kalamkari is a traditional skill of hand painting designs on silk and cotton fabrics,” says K Lakshmi Narayan, adding that form stands out due to its distinctive characteristic of being crafted with vegetable dyes. The art, however, gained prominence during the reign of Sevappa Nayak, the first Nayaka monarch of Thanjavur who summoned a group of skilled artisans from Karuppur to embellish the city’s palaces and temples. Their designs, adds Narayan, aligned with the kingdom’s refined taste in art and culture. During the Maratha era, these paintings gained immense popularity as a recurring motif adorning the ornamental dresses and regal attire of the nobility. “But irrespective of the era, the elaborate motifs and exquisite craftsmanship of Kalamkari were always highly prized,” he says. Artist Abirami is sitting on the floor, skilfully wielding her brushes, breathing life into kalamkari paintings, in this image she is painting a temple canopy.
Image: Veidehi Gite
The term ‘Kalamkari’ finds its origins in the fusion of two Persian words: ‘kalam’ meaning pen, and ‘kari’ representing the artistry of craftsmanship. Chithira paddam, which means ‘picture trace’ in Tamil, is another name for it, as the painting style is distinguished by the use of black outlines, elaborate borders and figurative motifs. The artisans begin by laying down the canvas, which is either made of silk or 100 percent cotton material. The process consists of 23 steps, including dyeing, starching, washing, and drying the cloth in repeated steps. To start with, the Gada cloth is treated with a cow-dung paste before being starched with adathudai (Malabar nut), and buffalo milk for strength and pliability to obtain the appropriate texture. The cloth acquires a yellow colour after dyeing, washing and drying. Once the canvas is finished, the artist draws the motifs with natural brushes known as kalams made from bamboo and echam sticks.
Plant roots, barks, vegetables, leaves, and stems are used to extract the colours in Karuppur Kalamkari paintings. The black dye is prepared from jaggery, rusted iron and karuva gum. The red dye is prepared using surul pattai (cinnamon sticks), udayam pattai (cinnamon sticks) powder and karuva gum; the yellow dye with verali manjal powder, nuna pattai powder and karuva gum and the blue dye is made with auri powder.
“All of our plants grow along the Cauvery river's bank. We use palm leaf plants as vegetable brushes for applying colours to the fabrics. We use udayam pattai (cinnamon sticks), kadukai nut (mustard seeds), karuvelam pattai (Mesquite tree bark), nuna pattai (Indian mulberry), sangam root, leaf of thaludha plant, tamarind stem, seenthil kodi (heart-leaved moonseed), verali manjal (turmeric finger), adathuda leaf (malabar nut), madhulai odu (champak flower), pinju kadukai (ink nut), auri plant, poovarasu leaf (Indian tulip), old iron plant, naval kodi (jamun fruit), and akasi kottai for vegetable dyes preparation,” Lakshmi Narayan tells Forbes India as he points out the various hardwood brushes and vegetable dye colours used in Kalamkari painting.
The kalam (pen) is used to fill in the outlines with the desired colours. The fabric is then washed to remove any excess colour before being sun-dried. This technique is used numerous times to acquire the appropriate level of detail and depth of colour. Natural dyes give the paintings a certain depth. The palette had traditionally been limited to black, red, and yellow, but in recent years, a soft blue shade has been included in the paintings. First, the artists apply black colour, then wash, then apply red colour, then wash, then apply yellow colour, then wash, and lastly apply blue colour and then wash. After finishing the drawing process, Gada cloth goes for the final wash in the river water.
Finished pieces lying around include Lord Shiva in his Nataraja incarnation painted on a saree, a royal procession scene painted on a cotton patch, and other artworks such as a tree asking not to be chopped, a forest scene with animals, a mermaid, Radha Krishna and Tri Devi painted in Kalamkari. Floral motifs, mythological figures, and scenes from epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are among other designs.
In Tamil Nadu, Karuppur Kalamkari paintings hold immense cultural significance. These versatile pieces are used as temple hangings, canopies, and door frame panels during temple celebrations, such as the Panguni Uthiram festival. The art form is strongly ingrained in the local community's customs and beliefs and is regarded as a sacred craft. Also read: Angampora, once banned in Sri Lanka, makes a comeback
Lakshmi Narayan, who's been painting Kalamkari for the last 25 years, says, “In Thanjavur, the Karuppur Kalamkari tradition paints a vibrant tale of chariot covers, cylindrical hangings (thombai), and door hangings (thoranams), all adorned with birds, animals, blooms, mythical creatures, and divine representations.”
But Karuppur Kalamkari, once patronised by royalty, is now facing a challenge. Painting the fabric can take anywhere from 15 days to 6 months, depending on how large and complex the design is. Despite the time and effort required to create each painting, there are not many buyers because people are not aware of the difference between natural dye paintings and screen-printed or block-printed paintings. Though Lakshmi Narayan adds, “Recently, the government of India has awarded us the GI (Geographical Indication) tag, which will help to protect and promote this unique art form.”
Lakshmi Narayan and his team of 15 artists are working hard to keep the art form alive. They create a variety of products, from napkins and kurtas to sarees and handbags, all using natural dyes and traditional hand-painting techniques. The average price of a Karuppur Kalamkari product ranges from Rs 10,000 to Rs 3 lakh, depending on the size and design. Our ancestors had a deep understanding of the importance of sustainability, and wearing hand painted Kalamkari clothing made with natural dyes is a sustainable and eco-friendly way to celebrate Earth and reduce our carbon footprint.