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Making kalamkari textiles : artisans and agency in Coromandel, India Rajarshi, Sengupta


This study sheds light on the undertheorized histories of artisan communities on the Coromandel region of southeastern India who were responsible for producing masterfully crafted dyed, painted and printed cottons during the early modern era. The textiles from these workshops are known as kalamkari (literally ‘pen work’) and were integral components of the early modern trade networks connecting India with other parts of Asia and Europe. Subsequently, these fabrics were collected and documented by the leading museums and institutions in India and the world. Kalamkaris have been regularly included in major exhibitions globally since 1970. However, a critical assessment of the agency of these textile makers was largely absent in the studies. What are the possible ways to reconstruct the agency of these textile makers whose practice thrived leaving hardly any trace but the textiles? Recent scholarship has provided methodological tools to identify the multiplicity of historical accounts and the ephemeral histories of the Deccan. My thesis expands the parameters of these approaches by foregrounding the multifaceted practice of the contemporary kalamkari makers. My sustained engagement with block makers of Pedana, dyers in Polavaram and Hyderabad, and other artisans of the Coromandel has informed my understanding of agency. I have repeatedly referred to a set of early modern and contemporary kalamkari fabrics from Indian museum collections to further my argument. Building on a rich corpus of interdisciplinary scholarship, fieldwork, and object analysis, I theorize “agency” as a fluid rather than fixed notion that embodies a series of complex interactions between the textile makers and their surroundings. Through repeating the intangible bodily practice of their masters and ancestors, the textile makers produce, sustain, and transform craft making. I emphasize that kalamkari making is the practice of continuously reconfiguring artisanal subject position by signaling the entanglement of agency and bodily actions—the repository of historically informed knowledge of the craftspeople. This exploration contributes to the ongoing scholarly discussions on the early modern cosmopolitanism, sensorial aspects of material culture, and embodied histories of the marginalized craftspeople.

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