Kalamkari is the art of painting cotton fabrics with a kalam, a sharp pointed bamboo stick padded with hair or cotton and tied with a string on one end to regulate the flow of colour. The art was exclusive to cotton fabric. In the 17th century Kalamkari was exported to Iran, Siam, Burma, the Persian Gulf, Maldives and Malacca. It saw immense popularity in eighteenth century Europe, the fabric being used as draperies and bedspreads.
Its floral and vegetable designs were in great demand, in particular the motif known as the 'Tree of Life'. It was a great favourite with the Dutch, who made dresses, skirts and jackets out of Kalamkari and also used the fabric as large wall hangings. The patterns were produced by dyes rather than from looms. The district of Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh is an important centre for figurative Kalamkari. The traditional colours used were iron black, indigo blue and madder red made from vegetable dyes. The starch is cleared in river water after which the fabric is dipped in a solution of myrobalam, milk and water to make the black dye permanent. The cloth is then twisted to wring out the water. The squeezing motion helps to spread the fat content of buffalo's milk. The fat holds the colours on the surface and prevents them from spreading. Mordants set up a chemical reaction due to which cotton fibres are able to absorb the desired hue. A mordant could be applied either with a block or with a brush or pen, the 'Kalam'. After the cloth is dried in the sun, it is folded and pressed. Straight lines are drawn in charcoal along the creases. This defines the decorative panel within which the main theme will be drawn. Charcoal sticks made from tamarind twigs are used for tracing outlines. These are of two types, a sharp tipped one for outline and a broad round tipped Kalam has a fibrous edge. The final lines are drawn with a Kalam using a mixture of molasses and iron filings called Kasam. The primary figures are sketched first followed by the others. The charcoal drawing provides the basic layout. Then a pointed Kalam is used to make line drawings using an iron mordant. All the details are subsequently filled in by pen. The background colours are filled first and then the figures. The fabric is then held in flowing water, taken out, shaken and dipped back in water. Excess mordant is swept away, after which the fabric is squeezed and dried. When the red and black colours have fixed, the fabric is boiled before being again washed in the river. The cloth is now ready for the yellow and blue painting after which the final washing and drying takes place. The themes of Kalamkari fabrics are traditionally chosen from the puranas or epics. These stories are depicted in the form of a series of horizontal panels with the narrative script running through with more important incidents receiving a larger layout. At times the image of a particular god or goddess with the appropriate vahana is depicted. To a large extent colours are used symbolically; blue is associated with deities, red with demons, Hanuman is depicted in green and so on. Yellow is used for female body colour and also to simulate gold ornaments. Animals and geometrical designs are traced in black against a white background. Motifs include different forms of the lotus flower, the cartwheel, parrots, an interlacing pattern of leaves and flowers, and the cat's paw.