The word 'Kalamkari' itself means 'pen craft', the design outlines are first drawn free-hand by master artisans by a thin pen made from bamboo or date palm sticks and the outlines are then filled in with organic colour. There are seventeen labour-intensive steps to be followed to make each piece of Kalamkari. The art was known as #vrathapani in ancient India.
You can identify an authentic kalamkari piece by the heady Kalamkari smell of buffalo milk, vegetable essence and cow dung that permeates from it. That smell is one of the characteristics of Kalamkari, because the raw cloth is soaked in a mixture of buffalo milk and astringents for many days to stiffen it for painting.
Traditionally, Kalamkari art from Srikalahasti consisted of religious themes taken from Hindu epics as well as themes from nature, village life etc. When painting sarees, traditional master artistes used to take care that scenes involving Gods and Goddesses are limited to the upper part of the Saree. The bottom part of the saree was left either plain, or with natural motifs like flowers and creepers.
The artisans in Kalahasthi perform the kalamkari work on cotton, silk and cotton silk fabrics.