When Purushotham, a Kalamkari artisan knocked on the doors Anita’ Reddy’s home to sell his wares, he didn’t realise the kind of impact he was going to make.
“As a passionate admirer of the Kalamkari textile art, I was curious to learn about its making and understand the process. So I spoke to him and that’s when I got to know that most of these artisans were struggling to keep the art alive and to make ends meet,” explain Anita Reddy, who founded Dwaraka (Development of Weavers and Rural Artisans in Kalamkari) in 1999 with the aim to revive the art of Kalamkari and empower the artisans behind the craft form.
Anita has been an activist all her life, fighting for the rights of slum dwellers along with her father Dwaraknath Reddy.
When Anita realised that an entire community was dying along with the art form that sustained them, she decided to do something to empower this declining artisanal community in Kalahasti, Andhra Pradesh.
With support from the Ramanarpanam Trust, set up by Anita’s father, she brought all the local artists together in Kalahasti, got them to train others, especially women, and established a sustainable model of work for the community.
“Today I find myself surrounded by over 3200 artisans who have been directly empowered through Dwaraka. It’s truly a great feeling to know that an entire community of artisans have revived their skills through our trust,” says Anita Reddy.
“The first step we took was to identify 20 women artisans and train them to create products that are suitable for the market all while reviving the art form,” she adds.
Anita further explains that Kalamkari was traditionally practised by men in the family, and the art form was typically dominated by them. However, Dwaraka has been able to break this norm and involve women in the process, which has helped them become economically independent.
The women at Dwaraka have not only been given the gift of financial independence but have also discovered a new way to express themselves.
Kanchana, a 32-year-old woman who has worked with Dwaraka from the very beginning has taken on many roles including being a lead artist and even the general secretary of the group.
“Today I feel like I am able to contribute something to the society and help retain the culture of my society. If not for the support from Dwaraka, I would never know that I had so many skills.” says Kanchana proudly.
Taking their initiative to help such artisans further, Dwaraka has set up centres in all the prominent rural regions including Sri Kalahasti and Machilipatnam, two major centres of Kalamkari in India.
“I don’t believe in uprooting these artisans from their culture and bringing them to the cities. For the same reason, we decided to set up the centres in these rural areas. For Dwaraka, it’s not just about reviving Kalamkari but also the culture that is attached to it, ” explains Anita.
While the Machilipatnam form of Kalamkari involves block-printing patterns, the Kalahasti Kalamkari involves patterns that are entirely hand-drawn and focuses on mythological figures and stories.
The clothes are first dipped in a mixture of cow dung and bleach to even out the fabric tone. After it is dried out, it is repeatedly dipped into another mixture of buffalo milk and myrobalan flowers.
“Without this treatment, the ink won’t stick to the cloth,” Kanchana points out as she explains the strenuous process.
The initial outlines and marking on the cloth is made with a piece of tamarind bark. For the filling, a soft thread is tied around a wooden stick, which holds the ink. Black, solid outlines are made by using a solution of iron filings and jaggery.
“The kalam or the pen that is used gives the art form its name ‘kalam’ kari” Kanchana adds.
The artisans use various natural colours during the dyeing process. Pomegranate imparts a yellow colour while manjistha or madder is used for that characteristic red colour that we so often see on kalamkari fabrics.
After drying, the cloth is put in boiling water in a large vessel with leaves, flowers and roots of the desired dye sources. Once this treatment is complete, the cloth is once again washed and dried in the sun.
“We’ve always made sure to use natural vegetable dyes in all our products. I’ve been very keen about this from the very beginning because I want the products to be authentic, in all aspects.” Anita explains.
Today Dwaraka has expanded into stores in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and even California, USA with product prices ranging from Rs. 200 onwards to Rs.1500.
For their exceptional work in empowering local artisans, Dwaraka was also recognised with the Global Impact Award from the International Folk Art Community in Santa Fe.
The women behind this change, Anita Reddy also received the Padma Shri in 2011, for her outstanding contribution as a social worker.
“If you love the designs of exquisite trees, intricate peacocks and detailed depictions of deities spread across soft cotton fabric or you’re someone who can never resist Kalamkari kurtas, bags, cushion covers and sarees, Dwaraka is the place to be,” Anita concludes.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)