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Kodali Karuppur Kalamkari

The pandemic has affected every business be it corporate or street vendor. Traditional crafts, many of which are already on the brink of extinction due to lack of patronage, are no exception. One such craft is Kodali Karuppur Kalamkari. Most of us would know about Kalamkari art of Andhra Pradesh from Machilipatnam and Kalahasti, each with two distinctive techniques of hand painting/ printing on textiles. But Kodali Karuppur Kalamkari is a technique with a difference from Tamil Nadu. Originally practiced in Karuppur, the artisans moved to Sickelnayakanpet village near Thanjavur over three generations ago. At present only one traditional family, headed by K. Lakshminarayanan, who belongs to the fourth generation, is practicing this art. His father R. Krihsnamoorthy had won the Tamil Nadu State award as well as the Living Craft Treasure award. Kodali Karuppur Kalamkari is used mainly in temples as screens and in the decoration of temple chariots as flags, screens and the cylindrical hangings known as ‘thombai’. As temple festivals or other occasions where this kalamkari work could be used have been absent it has upset the lives of the artisans.

The specialty of this Kalamkari is that every bit of work from preparing the natural colours to drawing/painting on the material is done by hand. Even the body colour of the material is not dipped in any dye but painted by hand. This ancient craft is historically important as it is believed that the screens, thombai etc. used to hang in palaces since the Chola period to the time of the Maratha rulers such as Raja Sarfoji in Thanjavur area.

Techniques and specifications are quite important for creating Kodali Karuppur Kalamkari. Most of the plants needed for the tools and colours for this craft such as Odhiyam, Nuna, Karuvelam and Avaram and palm tree grow naturally and freely in this area on the banks of the Cauvery near Sickelnayakanpet . Only Kadukkai (Chebulic Myrobalan) needs to be bought from the market; it is used for preparing the basic coating of the cloth. Buffalo milk and rice stock water also play important roles in the process. It also requires the use of plenty of water as the material needs to be washed at every stage; besides the river water, the water table too is good in Sickelnayakanpet area for digging bore wells.

This Kalamkari art is quite time consuming; from the beginning to the final product it could take quite a number of weeks. First grey gada material is dipped in a solution of cow dung, buffalo milk and rice stock water, then rinsed in water and spread on the floor in open air to dry; it should not be spread in direct sun. 20 counts CB Erode gada is used as the weaving is close and can withstand washing frequently; when washing too milk and rice stock water are also added to regain the thickness of the material. This also enables better absorption of the colour.

After a day or two when the cloth is dry the designs are drawn first with charcoal. Black colour is prepared with old iron (rusted), seasoned palm jaggery, Kadukkai solution and rice stock water; outlines of the designs are drawn with the black colour. Then the material is rinsed in water and dried in the shade. Then comes red made with the bark of cinnamon , which is known here as ‘surul pattai’ and Odhiyam pattai (bark of Indian ash tree / Lannea coromandalica); both these barks are soaked in water for a day or two and then ground; when dry they are powdered and stored; if a deeper red is needed Nuna bark (Noni or Indian Mulberry /Morinda citrifolia) powder is added. After red it is yellow, made from thin turmeric tuber, known as ‘virali manjal’ in Tamil; dye from yellow Avaram flower (tanner’s cassia / Senna auriculata) too is added when brighter shade is needed; an addition of Avuri or Indian Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) which gives blue can be added to the yellow for green, while Adathoda (adathoda versica) leaf would give a different shade of green. After application of each coating and each colour the material has to be washed and dried. Karuvelam (Babool/Vechellia nilotica) is added to the dyes as glue. Each colour may have to be applied two to three times depending upon how strong/bright it needs to be; for this the colour solution which would be thicker at the bottom could be used. After the designs have been completed then the background colour would be painted. Only specific hues can be used for each deity as per tradition when they form part of the design on the screen, but the background colour is left to the artisan’s choice. For instance Krishna has to be in blue and Radha in yellow. For drawing the designs bamboo sticks are used for thick lines and for thin lines it would be sticks from “Eecha maram” or Indian date palm (Phoenix sylverstris). For painting the base colour or filling up the areas in the design the stem of the palm fronds (Panai mattai) are crafted like a brush.

These days these artisans also make bags, wall hangings and small ‘thombais’ for interior décor. Some textile showrooms also commission Kodali Karuppr Kalamkari painted sarees and provide the materials . It can be painted on silk, tussar, silk cotton and even synthetic. The artisans know through experiment and experience how the process may be tweaked for each material to achieve the best results.

Lakshminarayanan, who has conducted training workshops for college students such as Fashion Designing Dept., PSG College, Bowdon University, USA etc. besides various handicraft centres in India, asserts that hands on training for several months and working along with experienced artisans alone can make one reasonably competent in this art. Youngsters from surrounding villages have been trained in the craft from mixing colours to painting. Normally preliminary work of drawing the images and preparing the material would be done by his family members, but when there are sufficient orders locally trained persons would pitch in. There are no dearth of trained persons to take up orders; it is only the lack of patronage which makes them seek other avenues of livelihood. Lakshminarayanan has supplied thombais, vasamalais and large paintings to temples in the USA, Singapore etc.

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