In quest of modern Vrathapani

A Kalamkari narrative painting of scenes from the life of Christ depicted in horizontal strips accompanied by a script, arranged around a large central scene of Christ in Majesty, painted by Sri Jonnalagadda Gurappa Chetty, Kalahasti, ca. 1980.
Image Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London (

Flickering through the art and culture menu of the online entertainment of an Air India flight from Frankfurt to New Delhi, my fingers settle on one short documentary– The art of Storytelling in Kalamkari. I am interested in all forms of storytelling. But the episode shows more about the technique than the actual stories. However the word Kalamkari is retained in my mind. Three years later, on a similar flight, I move back to India after finishing my Masters in Fine Arts from Germany. A month and a half after having touched base, I travel to Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh to research about its local art form which has still kept me curious.

Kalamkari is the art of free hand drawing on cloth using organic dyes. First the cloth is washed and primed. Then black outlines of figures and patterns are drawn with special bamboo pens. The cloth is then washed and the black outlines fixed. Now colours can be filled in between the black outlines. Each colour must be fixed before the next colour can be added, or else they will all get mixed and smudged. Since the cloth is a thick cotton fabric and the colours organic, a Kalamkari piece can last for more than a century without getting damaged. The organic colours have medicinal properties that protect the cloth from insects.

The process of preparing the cloth for drawing and the fixing the colours is a very lengthy one, but intrinsic to the philosophy of Kalamkari. Any deviation should be disqualified, maintain the traditionalists. For example if the images were not hand drawn but block printed or silk screened, or the dyes not prepared as per traditional recipes. I am interested in Vrathapani- a special form of Kalamkari that deals with the art of storytelling.

Vrathapani was especially patronised by the temples of south India. Long stretches of cloth depicting the stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and Krishna Leela etc. were hung in temple courtyards for the visual reading of the masses during festive seasons. What I am interested to know – has Vrathapani moved along with the times and tells contemporary stories?

Contemporary stories in visual art- the title summarises my research interest as well as my artistic practice. How are artists imbibing their social reflections and daily realities in their artworks, leaving traces of the present times?

My first online research directs me to the website of Paramparik Karigar an organisation to promote Indian handicrafts. Names of some Kalamkari artists are listed here. Other web pages inform me of a school in Tirupati which trains students in the art of Kalamkari.
Mr. P.M. Munirathnam is the teacher for Kalamkari at the Sri Venkateshwara Institute of Traditional Sculpture and Architecture in Tirupati. Along with his assistant Gopal he trains young students over a period of two years. On the walls of the classroom hang a few pieces of Kalamkari paintings and the images of various hand mudras as we know it from Indian dance, from the drawings of Ajanta and Nandalal Bose and Indian temple iconography are drawn on a chalk board.

Here is see my first piece of Vrathapani- an episode of Vishnu Kalyan– the marriage of Vishnu and Lakshmi drawn on a square piece of cloth. The format is very similar to that of a comic book page- rectilinear blocks filled with figures, each block separated from the other by horizontal and vertical lines. The images are to be read from left to right, top to bottom. But the main image of the episode depicted, irrespective of its chronology appears in a roundel in the middle of the composition. In this case, the image of Vishnu and Lakshmi seated together, getting married by priests in front of the holy fire.

The students are practising drawing human figures as per the classical cannons. The Kalamkari style of drawing is influenced by the south Indian temple iconography. There are templates and old sketches from which students copy and practice.

I ask Mr. Munirathnam and his students- do they make Vrathapani with contemporary themes. At first it is difficult for them to visualise what I mean. I explain, “Say Lakshmi holding a cell phone instead of a lotus, or a story about Amitabh Bachchan visiting Tirupati for a darshan”. They laugh, but say no. I ask whether they are interested to do something like that. They ask who will buy such images. I give them examples of Patachitra with contemporary themes that are being collected, but the students are not convinced. I talk of the need of arts as a reflection of their societies. Still they do not budge. Yes if there is a commission work, they can execute it. I insist that as a researcher, I am looking for their stories, their compositions. I do not want to impose my story on them. It’s not supposed to be made- to -order. I am looking for works with artistic vision and individual expression, not just artisanal skill. As a visual artist who works with narratives and believes India to be a land of storytellers, I am on the lookout for fellow artists who work similarly.

Mr. Munirathnam tells me the students are too young and the school has a fixed curriculum that he teaches. I must read between the lines and hold myself back. Still I hope that the idea take seed in someone’s young head there and depart for Srikalahasti- the main centre for Kalamkari.
At Srikalahasti, the first studio I enter is called Bhanodaya Kalamkari. The entire third floor of a residential building is used as a workshop. Long stretches of cloth are laid down on the floor. Female artisans sit and fill colours in the already outlined cloth. Mrs. Padmavati the owner, explains that the entire work has shifted towards textile design. She supplies to fashion designers based in Hyderabad and Mumbai. Blouse pieces, saris and dupattas are their current output. She shows me photographs of some of her hand drawn Kalamkari that has landed on the ramps of fashion shows. When I ask her if there is anybody in her workshop doing new story pieces, she says the skill of drawing is itself dying out. Most of the old story pieces have been copied and converted to silk screens. The black outlines are screened onto new cloth and colours filled in with hand. So not only would it be difficult to find new stories, but also rare to find new compositions for old mythological stories.
She however shows me one piece of Kalamkari which all the artisans in her workshop made on the second anniversary of the company. It is titled the Stages of a Woman’s life- birth, childhood, school education, puberty, marriage, motherhood and old age are depicted. The drawing is freehand and partly classical partly folk art in style.

Why the stages of a woman’s life especially?
Since women work as a majority in here. They suggested the theme.

Who composed the drawing on this cloth?
One of the male workers who does the drawings.

This tells a lot about the organisation of the Kalamkari studios. Each studio has one or two artists who sketch the compositions with graphite or charcoal on the primed cloth and then two or three more persons who outline it with the black organic ink filling in as much detail such as ornamentation, the gestures of the fingers, the intricate borders. Then it is passed onto lesser skilled workers who fill in the colours. Intermittently the cloth pieces are sent to the riverside for washing and fixing processes.

Why don’t you do more of such pieces that tell the people about this place, your societies and customs?
We have orders to finish is the short and courteous reply.

I see two pieces of mythological stories like Krishna Leela with Krishna killing the Kaaliya Nag as the central motif and a very condensed version of the Mahabharata beginning with the dice game and ending with the victory of the Pandava brothers. These pieces were made a few years ago and are lying at the workshop in case a rare interested customer walks in.

Vijaylakshmi Fine Kalamkari Arts is my next studio visit. Mr. Vishwanath Reddy employs around forty artisans in four workshops in the area. The floors of this studio are also laid out with saris, prospective cushion covers and dupattas. Here again a few not so old mythological pieces, the same answers and the same offer- madam if you have a commission we can execute it.

In the afternoon I visit Ramesh Gorjala, an artist who has studied in an art college in Hyderabad and paints on canvas. He has a good collection of very large pieces of Kalamkari, some from 1950s and some almost 15 meters long. One of the pieces has been completed this year and looks very different from the works I have seen so far. Titled A divine tree the work plays with the motif of The tree of life which is frequently painted in Kalamkari. Here the three branches of the tree bear roundels with scenes which show the similarities of three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It is a work to promote religious tolerance, says artist Nand Gopal who lives in the neighbourhood. It has taken him almost a year, working only two to three hours daily on this big piece, while executing other commission works. It takes time to create compositions and research about the various religions. Time for creativity and research- a resource that is lacking for most artists worldwide. Yet he has been able to keep his creativity going on, albeit in a slow pace. He can do any religious piece in Kalamkari he says. I ask him whether he would like to depict his own story instead. His eyes have question marks that I have grown all too familiar with. He is not so creative or imaginative to compose his own story piece, he says. I feel otherwise.

If people came up with their personal stories, Nand Gopal says he could compose it in the Kalamkari style. It sounded like a good online business proposition. People could email in their stories, send their photographs as reference and decide upon the format of the final product- sari, dupatta, bed sheet, cushion cover or a framed painting and pay up in advance and get their customised piece of Kalamkari art. Nand Gopal likes the idea, but online, website and e commerce are concepts too strange for not only him but also many artists across the country.

My final visit is paid to Padmashri Gurappa Chetty. As I enter he is sitting on a table with a small piece of primed cloth. I smile as I see the sketching pencil and the outlining pen both lying together. The cloth is a work in progress. Mr. Chetty sketches and outlines simultaneously. His wife fills in the colours. He agrees with my notion that art should reflect its times. He has made pieces about village games and festivals, scenes of harmony such as Hindus embracing Muslims on Eid, he has referenced the literature of his times.

Suddenly the word trajectory flashes across my mind- the artist’s journey, his language, the development of his style, his transcendence. What makes Mr. Chetty a Shilpaguru, a Padmashri? His work has subtle differences from the previous examples that I have seen. His compositions and his drawing is free from the classical cannons. He is making work without thinking about his buyers. He wants to leave behind his own impressions of the world in which he has lived. He is aiming for the Vrathapani- for the story depicted by the black outlines and not just for the black lines in itself. Herein is the amalgamation of the artisan and the artist.

I am happy that my short research ends positively. I found at least one artist whose work bears his thoughts and his signature. While it is good for the artists in Srikalahasti that Kalamkari finds application in the fashion industry, it is sad that Kalamkari as a fine art, as a medium of personal expression for the artist is not being explored. Of all the artists and artisans I had met in Srikalahasti, Nand Gopal seemed most creative and passionate about doing something different. But it is only financial support that can encourage him and others bridge the gap towards creativity. Four days in Srikalahasti made me confront the question – what is creativity and what does it mean to different people. It would be interesting if the crafts museum in New Delhi or the Ministry of handicrafts and handlooms gave scholarships to artisans so that they could afford to take a break from their daily routine and materialise their unspoken projects. Very similar to what residencies do for artists and writers.

August 03, 2016.

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