Kalamkari, which literally means “pen-worked,” is a multistep process for creating designs. The cloth is first stiffened by being steeped in astringents and buffalo milk and then dried in the sun. The red, black, brown, and violet portions of the designs are outlined with a mordant, and the cloth is placed in a bath of alizarin. The cloth is then covered with wax, except for the parts to be dyed blue, and placed in an indigo bath. Afterwards, the wax is scraped off and the areas to be yellow or pale green are painted by hand.
It is a type of hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile, produced in parts of India and Iran. Its name originates in the Persian ,قلمکار which is derived from the words qalam (pen) and kari (craftmanship), meaning drawing with a pen. Only natural dyes are used in kalamkari and it involves seventeen steps.
There are two distinctive styles of kalamkari art in India – the Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style. The Srikalahasti style of kalamkari, wherein the “kalam” or pen is used for free hand drawing of the subject and filling in the colors, is entirely hand worked. This style flowered around temples and their patronage and so had an almost religious identity – scrolls, temple hangings, chariot banners and the like, depicted deities and scenes taken from the Hindu mythological classics.
The first step is to stiffen the cloth by seeping 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 is 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 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 hair attached to this pointed end to serve as the brush or pen.This pen is soaked in a mixture of fermented jaggery and water; one by one these are applied, then the vegetable dyes.
In Iran, the fabric is printed using patterned wooden stamps.
In modern times the term is also used to refer, incorrectly, to the making of any cotton fabric patterned through the medium of vegetable dyes by free-hand painting and block-printing, produced in many different regions of India. In places where the fabric is block printed the kalam (pen) is used to draw finer details and for application of some colours.