Kalakar and kalamkari


Pitchuka Srinivas, Kalamkari craftsman from Pedana, Andhra Pradesh, in an interview with Muskan Kaur and Shreya Saksena, Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, Sonipat.


Srinivas is the only remaining craftsman continuing the tradition of handmade Kalamkari, while others have shifted to faster and cheaper screen-printing processes. Kalamkari art was brought to Pedana by Pitchuka Veera Subbaiah, Srinivas’s father. Later, Srinivas began exporting Kalamkari cloth in 2002 which found a patron in New York-based Mary Bergtold Mulcahy’s store called Les Indiennes. In 2022, he was awarded the Dr Y.S.R. Achievement Award by the state government.

Kalamkari is a form of traditional Indian art created primarily in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It dates to the 11th century and is said to have been brought to the Port of Machilipatnam (then Maesolia) by Persian traders.1 Kalamkari’ originates from the words ‘kalam’ which means pen, and ‘kari’ which means work.  The propagation of this art form is attributed to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay – the first chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board.

Today, the art of Kalamkari painting is divided into two distinct schools: Srikalahasti style, and Machilipatnam style. The Srikalahasti style involves freehand drawing using a pen – usually a pointed bamboo or date palm stick with a bundle of fine hair attached to one end2 – on cloth. The Machilipatnam style, on the other hand, involves block printing. Like many traditional Indian crafts, Kalamkari uses only natural materials. These raw materials include cotton cloth, dried unripe fruit, and milk to make the ‘mordant,’ charcoal sticks, black kasimi liquid, alum solution and natural pigments in red, indigo, and yellow.

The process of creating this art form is a long-drawn one which involves preparing the fabric, creating the natural dyes, and fixing the coloured cloth, among other crucial steps. Like many traditional art forms, Kalamkari is a generational practice and is observing a decline in practising artists.3


Muskan Kaur and Shreya Saksena: Your father introduced Kalamkari art in Pedana. What inspired him to practise this form of art?

Pitchuka Srinivas: My father started Kalamkari in the 1970s, in Pedana. He belonged to the community of handloom artists. At the time, he anticipated that there would be no future of handloom artwork, and that there would be minimal chances of surviving in the handloom industry. Through
his trips to Mumbai, he found that a lot of people were interested in Kalamkari and were inquiring about Kalamkari products in the city. Since he had no knowledge about Kalamkari, he came to Machilipatnam, and inquired about it. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay revived this craft after independence. She started a small society in Machilipatnam. During that time, the society was sold to the government, and not to private people. So, my father wanted to develop this art for future generations.


How and when did you decide to join your father in the preservation of Kalamkari?

My father passed away in 1985, when I was only 16 years old. I knew about Kalamkari since I was a kid, and I would accompany my father to the rivers, play with the artisans, and used to watch them at work. During the ’80s and ’90s, even if we got a good education, there was no chance of getting any job. While that is one reason, I was also very interested in this artform. I didn’t want to move to any other place for a job; I wanted to continue living in my village. For these reasons, I felt inclined to pursue this artform. After my father passed away, I discontinued my education to practise Kalamkari.


How are the raw materials of Kalamkari procured and prepared?

The black colour is obtained from iron scarp, jaggery, and salt from a well. The reason why Kalamkari is possible in Machilipatnam, is because it is located on the Coromandel coast. We cannot get the same Kalamkari if we go 70 kms from my village to Vijayawada, because the colours are not obtained from the groundwater there. Earlier, Indigo used to grow here but due to pollution and other reasons, it has completely vanished. To get different colours, there are different processes. For example, on a white background, no Myrabalan treatment is required. And the staining process is required for some colours, while other colours require boiling with natural resources.


Is this a community artform?

Multiple people are engaged in this process. Usually, the women engage in the painting work, while the men undertake the more laborious work, such as, washing, boiling, and carrying the cloth. Sometimes, men were also engaged in the printing of typical designs.


What are the primary subjects you focus on in the artwork?

Kalamkari is primarily focused on temple art. The designs are influenced by Mughal art, and Sri Krishnadevaraya’s temple designs. Nowadays, foreigners are interested in old traditional designs, while some people are more interested in modern designs, for which we create new blocks accordingly. The designs are often customised according to the customers’ preferences. As per my interest, we created the Tree of Life for the first time in India, using 223 blocks.



Why did you create the Tree of Life?

Today, my son, who completed his graduation in engineering, has also taken an interest in this artform. I told him that we need to develop this Tree of Life, for our work to be recognized. This is the reason why we created the Tree of Life.


What does the Kalamkari museum focus on?

I have observed since my childhood, that many foreigners and visitors would be interested in the process of the artwork. I had an idea to build a kind of museum that would display the whole process behind Kalamkari in one place. This would include how the colours are made, and what raw materials are used among other information.


What do you think the future for Kalamkari work would look like?

There’s a scarcity of artisans today. They are migrating to the cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore, in search of education; the younger generation is not free anymore. Therefore, they are losing interest in Kalamkari. Even the talented artisans are moving to building and construction work. This is the only problem we are facing: the lack of artisans.

Images of the Tree of Life from Pedana.


* Interview conducted on 8 May 2023.

1. Bindu Gopal Rao, ‘Pitchuka Srinivas, The Lone Crusader’, The Hindu, 29 September 2019.

2. S.C. Sumathi, Kalamkari Paintings. Indian heritage – kalamkari unit of Kalakshetra, n.d. https://www.indian-heritage.org/painting/ktrcrft.html

3. S.N.P. Patwardhan, Kalamkari: A Traditional Indian Art Form. Laasya Art, 12 December 2022. https://laasyaart.com/kalamkari-a-traditional-indian-art-of-perfection/