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Kalamkari, the art of drawing on Persian fabrics

Kalamkari is the art of designing, drawing, and painting on fabric via special pens. Kalamkari is a Persian word borrowed in Hindi. The word is made of two parts (kalam+ kari, literally pen + craftsmanship). And its meaning is ‘an artistic work done by the brush’. The original kalamkari is very delicate and expensive as the artist does it manually from start to finish. kalamkari drawing

The history of kalamkari drawing

There is no clear record about the history of kalamkari. The most detailed comment about it is the one by Phyllis Ackerman in the third volume of the Arthur Upham Pope book. He quotes from an author claiming that this art has started from the Ghaznavid era in 10th century AD in Iran.

However, the archeological findings don’t confirm this claim. Mostly because archeologists have discovered a piece of fabric in the tomb of “Seven Brothers’ Kurgans and Gorodishche” archeological site. They’ve also found another artifact of kalamkari fabric in a graveyard in Egypt, dating back to the same historical period.

Having said that, kalamkari has become common in the Mongol era. To attract the attention of the Mongol khans, Iranians began designing and painting on the fabric. When Safavids came to power, artists from all parts of the country came to their capital, Isfahan, to benefit the supports of Safavids, especially Shah Abbas the Great. That is why even until now Isfahan is the main production area of this art.

kalamkari drawings on Persian fabrics are very delicate and fine
kalamkari drawings on Persian fabrics are very delicate and fine

A good piece of kalamkari fabric

In the Isfahan market, you can find a wide diversity of kalamkaris with different qualities. Various factors impact on the quality and grade of kalamkari fabric. The first factor is the type of fabric and it should be made of cotton. Otherwise, the fabric does not absorb dyes well and causes defects in the fabric.

Dying in kalamkari drawings

Dyes are one of the most important factors affecting the beauty and price of kalamkari fabrics. It is so because all the dyes used in a noble kalamkari art must be natural. The naturalness of dyes in this art means that artists achieve different colors using natural elements. For example, the artists make the black color of walnut husk and tragacanth. Or they make red of alum, madder, and tragacanth.

Consequently, if the artists use natural dyes and natural methods for fixation of its colors, the product life will extend. In addition to color and fixation, there are other factors that increase the life time of kalamkari art. Designs, stamps and the variety of colors that artists use are important factors in the quality of the kalamkari.

kalamkari drawings on Persian fabrics are very delicate and fine
kalamkari drawings on Persian fabrics are very delicate and fine

Kalamkari fabrics are very beautiful, yet pretty expensive and valuable. Its production and preparation takes a lot of time. Accordingly, most of the fabrics you see in the Isfahan market are not actual kalamkari. In fact, they are printed using patterned wooden stamps and Iranians call them “Chitsazi”. Chitsazi resembles kalamkari fabrics but it not painted with pens or brushes. On the contrary, artists use manual printmaking tools in their production. As a result, the productions of Chitsazi are a combination of kalamkari art and printmaking. kalamkari drawings 

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