Pen Kalamkari is a style of art from Sri Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh where freehand drawings are done with pens made of bamboo and then painted in with natural colours. It is characterized by flowery motifs and mythological motifs from Hindu epics.
Vishwanatha Reddy is a pen Kalamkari artisan and works with about forty other artisans in a cluster in Sri Kalahasti. His family has been practising the craft for nearly two generations and he himself has been a kalamkar since childhood. With the growing popularity and demand of Kalamkari work, there has been substantial dilution in authentic hand worked Kalamkari art. Screen printed art is booming and affecting the authenticity of the craft.
Vishwanatha has a Bachelor of Arts degree and has received a National Award in 2008 for his work in pen Kalamkari. “Initially, our family only made wall hangings but over the past ten years they have built a collection of saris, dupattas, running fabric, and stoles as well.”, he says. The cotton saris and stoles are a few of his bestsellers, especially in summer when they are comfortable to use.
He lives in a joint family structure, with his wife, two sisters and their husbands, and his mother. He works for about eight to nine hours a day and has achieved the status of a master artisan. The months of May and June are slow selling. During the monsoons, they cannot make any new pieces as rains hamper the crucial drying process.
“People don’t realize how much work does into Kalamkari work. All artists develop back pain and eye problems over time because of the attention to detail.”, Vishwanatha explains about the side-effects of practising pen Kalamkari.
Vishwanatha’s father’s family used to make large murals that were popular. But now they do smaller and medium sized ones to make it more accessible to all kinds of customers. He also keeps working on new, contemporary patterns to use on stoles and dupattas to cater to demands in wearable art.
Vishwanatha has even painted the entire Ramayana on a piece of 2 metre fabric. He derives inspiration from his worn ideas, research and through training. Without any children in the house, he is unsure of who will take the craft forward. “Currently our biggest challenge is Corona virus impact. We have no business and no raw materials to work on and keep stick ready. We are only able to sell through Whatsapp since there are no exhibitions.”
Today, with only about five to six master artisans in this field, pen Kalamkari is a vulnerable craft. Coupled with the Covid scenario and growing market of cheap, screen-printed alternatives, it is essential to build awareness of the complexities of this ancient craft.