Qalamkar – What makes a craft unique?
By Aastha Jain and Sakshi Mundada
No craft can be completely understood or rightly appreciated without an insight into the lives and minds of the perpetuators of the craft, i.e., the artisans. These are the people who spend their entire lives carrying forward the legacy. Through their every single activity, every single day, they perform the admirable as well as challenging task of conserving an intellectual and cultural entity that has shaped our society. In their effort lies the real value of a craft. Beyond the obvious beauty and intricacy of any product is the skill, persistence and belief of the artisan that makes any craft worth it all. To unpack kalamkari and understand it beyond the captivating prints, we dove into the life of one such artisan.
I am Varun Kumar Pitchuka, third generation Kalamkari business owner hailing from the village of Pedana in Andhra Pradesh, India. A former engineer and current kalamkari practitioner, I grew up amidst the craft and my interest in it came naturally. It was my grandfather Mr. P. Veera Subbaiah who introduced this craft in Pedana in the 1970s. Following the success of his venture, the previously handloom-oriented craft industry of this village, turned to Kalamkari. Over the years, Pedana became a hub of Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari, which follows the process of block-printing motifs using wooden blocks and natural dyes to create intricate designs.
Changing and challenging times
My father Mr. Pitchuka Srinivas became one of the select few artisans to carry forward this craft in all its authenticity. In later years as the demand for Kalamkari increased people shifted from the traditionally block printing process to a much faster and cheaper screen printing one. Screen printing units started popping up around the village. These units not only used chemical dyes and created lower quality products that were extremely harmful to the environment, but they also sold these as original kalamkari creations for a much lower price. With these rapidly produced, non-sustainable, low-cost products flooding the market, my father and I found it difficult to convince Indian buyers about the importance of authentic processes and the legitimacy of their products. We realized that it was only the true connoisseurs of art who would take the effort to understand all that goes in the creation of one single product and appreciate it.
We now sell majorly to export houses, finding a much willing audience in the western nations and to curated online portals that sell authentic craft products. This has been the story of multiple artisans and craft practices as they have had to engage their energy in warding off those who have been diluting the name and legacy of the craft. Sustaining a craft and its centuries old practices in contemporary times is difficult enough with the added effect of such malpractices. It poses a question into the morality of business practices in this sector and highlights the need to initiate conversations surrounding the importance of keeping the traditional practices alive.
A mindful approach towards life
As one of the very few people choosing to continue living in the village while most of my peers left for jobs in cities, I have a different take on life. Unlike most youngsters of my age, I have recognized pretty early that I don’t want a life of running after money. I find satisfaction in a legacy, manifest beauty in the form of art and live life in harmony with nature. I believe that the process of creating a craft should be such that no stakeholder is at a loss. From the artisan to the environment, these beautiful products shouldn’t come at the cost of depleted livelihoods or natural resources.
I not only stayed back to continue my family’s tradition but also brought forth my own passion for sustainability and utilized my techno-savvy abilities. I put up information in the form of blogs so as to make people aware of the slow making processes through which every piece of Kalamkari is created. It was the craft of Kalamkari that ignited my interest in sustainable solutions which later took form into my newfound passion for natural farming. Over the last few years, I found a mentor in my neighbouring village, learned about natural farming and have started growing red rice and a few vegetables. My shift towards a lifestyle full of choices has helped me define a minimum carbon footprint system which serves as an inspiration for others. I have made a conscious effort in maintaining a work- life balance and encourage the artisans of my unit to do the same.
It is my firm belief that my choice to put all my efforts in keeping the craft alive is the right one. I hope that the next generation also does the same, as I understand that it is the cumulative knowledge that needs to be preserved and cultivated so as to keep this tradition that has been around since centuries alive.
Surviving a pandemic
It is this strength of belief and resilience that has got the artisans all over India through the plethora of problems they have faced. One of them being the onset of coronavirus induced pandemic. I myself had to face months of closed activity and no sales as I struggled to keep myself busy. I started compiling and organizing a motif library, making the best use of the time. This process of archiving has helped me organise my business and manage client requirements much more effectively. As things opened up again after a long and exhausting first lockdown, fortunately I saw a high rise in demand for fabric and got back to work.
But it was never easy as the chain of supply for the raw materials was disturbed, with the cotton mills and their workers struggling under the load of the infection. To top it all, a second wave hit the country. This was a much more brutal, rapidly affecting and highly spreading wave that hit harder and closer than the first wave. With people around me including friends and family being severely affected, and the medical infrastructure of this country in shatters, I, like most other Indians was left disturbed. This resulted in another halt in production so as to keep the artisans working under me safe from the virus.
A future full of simple pleasures
As slowly and carefully, the lockdown starts easing up, I hope to start up production and complete my orders. For the future, I hope to keep continuing with my passion of natural farming and practice of Kalamkari. I aspire to make as many people as possible aware of the craft and its extremely sustainable process, rich history and valuable legacy. It is not the profits or expansion of business that I seek, but a healthy life in harmony with my surroundings dedicated to a cause I am proud of.
The story of Varun is a reflection of the inherent mindfulness of these artisans who constantly strive for keeping alive a tradition and with it a repository of ancient knowledge and customs. They have time and again through their resilience and spirit taken challenges head on and came out victorious. In their strength is our belief and in their fight our support.