The Literal translation of the word kalamkari is Pen Craft. The intricate pictures are drawn with kalam or bamboo reed using natural dyes. The antiquity of natural dyed fabrics in India dates back to the pre-Christian era. Samples of these fabrics have been found in many excavations carried out at several parts of the world like Cairo, Greece, Central Asia and Arabia suggesting an overseas trade.

Percy Brown in Arts and Crafts of India– a descriptive study, New Delhi, 1903 mentions that Kalamkari during 18th century was practised all over the Coromandal cost stretching from Machalipatnam at the north to southern parts of India, especially in areas like Kalahasti, Salem, Madura, Palakolu, Machalipatnam, Tanjore, Eleimbedu in Chengalpet, and in Cocanada districts.

The Natural dyestuffs used in this craft are inexpensive and freely available in many parts of our country. These decorated fabrics were either used as temple backcloths or as garments. The art of Kalamkari, which has been practised in several parts of India from early times is now confined to merely a few places like Bagru, Sanganer, Palampur and Faizabad.


Wash thick cotton cloth well, beat to remove starch. Do not use soap. The cloth is then boiled in water for sometime in order to remove other impurities.

Take finely grounded myrobalan nut powder. This is used here because of its high tannin content. Add finely grounded myrobalan- nut powder in to buffaloes milk. Stir up well until the solution appears pale yellow.

For Ten metres cotton cloth:
Myrobalan ( Termalia chebula Retz )  150 grams.
Buffaloes Milk  2 litres.

The fat in buffaloes milk prevents dye from spreading on the cloth .For the best results avoid, boiled milk or standardized milk that is supplied in sachets. After soaking the cloth in the above solution for 5 minutes, wring it very tightly and dry in sunlight for 6 to 8 hours. Leave it under room temperature for one day. The treated fabric is ready for use.

This treatment helps the fabric to absorb the required metallic mordant, and also to develop a permanent black colour ,using ferrous mordant.


  • Use non- reactive vessels like plastic / enamel /glass or stainless steel for soaking.
  • The Tannin coated cloth should stored in a dry place, away from moisture and strong sunlight. Otherwise, spreading of dye and poor line quality would result .The maximum life of treated cloth is 40 days. (since Tannin on the fabric, becomes inert on passage of time)
Preparation of cloth
Destarched Cotton ClothPreparation of cloth
Myrobalan Coated Cloth

This instrument is used to draw lines on the cloth. A bamboo reed is taken and a woollen rag is rolled over it. Latter it is entwined by a cotton thread. (See figure-1). The tip of this instrument should be thin and sharp. The skin of the bamboo is retained on one of the side, which gives the reed strength and longer life to the tip.

When this instrument is dipped in to the dye solution, the woolen ball absorbs the dye by capillary actions. The artist holds the loaded kalam in upright position gently presses the woolen ball and drags it on the cloth. The dye, which comes out of the woolen ball, passing through the bamboo point, reaches the cloth.

The kalams that have broad tips are used to draw thicker lines and also for filling flat areas on the cloth.

(Known as Kassim in Srikalahasti parlance)
Soak the following in the closed earthern pot for fifteen days.
Cane Jaggery 300 grams.
Palm Jaggery 150 grams.
Iron Fillings 2 Kg.
Water 10 litres.

Mix palm and cane jaggeries powder together and allow it to dissolve in the water, after which iron fillings are dropped. The solution is stirred once in a few days and covered immediately. The fermentation takes place in a closed earthen pot. The reaction takes place between molasses and the iron fillings to form the resultant solution, the ferrous acetate.

This solution on contact with myrobalan coated cloth turns in to highly permanent black (Ferrous acetate reacting with Tannin). After 15 days filter all solid iron particles carefully and store it in a closed glass or plastic vessel.


Drawing black linesDraw preliminary lines with charcoal, usually made of burnt tamarind twigs. Dip the kalam in iron black solution. The woollen ball attached to the reed absorbs the dye. The artist then drags the kalam in upright position on the cloth, slightly squeezing the woolen ball. The dye on contact with the myrobalan treated cloth turns in to black. (Reaction of Fe. Acetate on Tannin)

The lines thus obtained are allowed to dry for about 1 minute, after which the excess dye is carefully removed by an absorbent cloth. (Thin cotton cloth–slightly wet) The artist takes extreme caution to prevent any accidental spillings of dye on the cloth. The Kalamkari black has an excellent colourfastness.

The tip of the bamboo pen has to be renewed whenever it becomes blunt. The thick padding is necessary underneath the cloth while using pen or kalam. After every use, wash kalam with plenty of water, squeezing woolen ball several times.Drawing black lines


  • The same black dye might be used for block printing on myrobalan treated cloth; however, the dye has to be thickened by adding glue (Meypro gum / gum arabic) to the required consistency.
  • When an artist wishes to retain the drawing only in black and white, he must wash the drawing in enough water and allow it to boil in water for about 2 minutes.

Red colour is obtained by mordanting the cloth with alum and then dyeing with dyestuffs rich in naturally occurring alizarin.Mordant colours are those colouring matters, which while possessing no colouring power in them are yet capable of combining with metallic basses to form insoluble precipitates on the cloth.

The Alum is powdered and allowed to dissolve in the water in following proportions (in plastic / glass vessel)
Water 1 litre.
Alum 100 grams.

The artists sometimes test the concentration by means of tasting a drop of alum solution. It should taste very sharp and caustic.

Wherever Red colour is required the above solution is brushed on cloth by means of kalam. The solution thus applied is allowed to dry on the cloth completely till the alum crystals reappear. Allow the cloth to dry under shade for 2 days.

To remove unfixed mordant attached to the cloth, the cloth should be washed in running waters. While washing, care should be taken to prevent the unfixed alum which is flowing away from the cloth does not touch other areas (i.e. unmordanted areas). Keep it in flowing waters for 5 minutes. Rinse and dry the cloth.

The shevelli (Rubia cordifolia Linn) and surul (Ventilago madraspatana Gaerth) are mixed in sufficient amount of water and allowed to boil. The cloth is immersed in this dye solution. It is stirred for sometime. When all the mordanted areas become Red, the artist removes the cloth. It is then washed thoroughly. The dying vessel must be non-reactive as it will not interfere with dyeing.

For 10 meters of cloth:
Surul Bark ( Ventilago Madraspatana Gaerth ) 100 grams.
Shevelli Root ( Rubia Cordifolia Linn ) 150 grams
Water 20 litres.

On leaving the dye- bath the whole surface of the cloth gets more or less stained with the colour Red, but this colour on unmordanted areas can be removed by bleaching thus leaving a coloured design on white background.


  1. By adding little bit of Iron black solution in the mordant, darker shades of red like maroon, chocolates are obtained.
  2. By altering the proportions of the dye stuffs employed in dye bath. i.e. more parts of surul in the dye bath will cause darker shades of Red & Maroon.
  3. By varying alum concentration (i.e. light Red appears where alum is applied once whereas bright Reds appear in those areas where alum is applied twice or thrice.)

Note: Surul/Shevelli are native names (telugu)


BleachingThe cloth is soaked in sheep’s dung solution and squeezed a little and kept wet over night.

In presence of strong sunlight, the cloth is kept on a moist riverbed. The water is sprinkled continuously. This process goes on for weeks until that cloth is fully bleached. The Red and Black portions will retain the colour while the rest is bleached white.


The cloth is again soaked in buffalo’s milk, squeezed tightly and dried. This will prevent spreading of colours (i.e.. yellow, blue, and green) after dipping the cloth in the milk, the cloth is dried in sunlight for 1 day. It is then allowed to dry under shade for another day. It is now ready for colouring.

Myrobalan Flower Powder 100 grams.
Water 1500 ml.
Alum 2 teaspoons full.

The myrobalan flowers (Termalia chebula Retz) are grounded into fine powder. It is poured into water and boiled till the volume is halved. It is then cooled and filtered. Later, it is applied on the cloth using the bamboo reed or kalam.


Indigo is the blue matter extracted from the plant Indigoferra Tinctoria. It is insoluble in water. This is dissolved only in alkaline solution. The artist puts a certain amount of indigo in large earthen pot full of water adding proportionate quantities of lime, fuller’s earth and tagara seeds. It i s then mixed with a stick and left for one week. This is applied on the cloth, using a separate pen.

Synthetic blue method : owing to the non availability of natural indigo, the craftsmen often use laundry blue crystals (ultramarine) for colouring blue areas. These crystals are dissolved in water and later applied on the cloth.


Blue colour is painted over the yellow areas to get Green. The cloth is finally washed in the flowing river water.


Source: http://www.thechromaacademy.com/kalamkari.asp

Here are a few more Kalamkari works:

Lord Ganesh:

Indian princess:

Lord Krishna:




5 responses »

  1. I’m researching a 15thC manuscript. Some of the drawing techniques look like Kalamkari to me. May I borrow a copy of the bird detail to illustrate the point I want to make? (I can’t quite work out which sort of bird it is, though. A swan? Someone’s sure to ask!

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