The Forgotten Soul to Indian Craft: Remembering Nelly Sethna and Kalamkari

The Forgotten Soul to Indian Craft: Remembering Nelly Sethna and Kalamkari

How NID lost the most historic pieces of craft and culture.

Prerona Lisah

Prerona Lisah

Often we forget contributors who have dedicated their lives to keep alive the rich cultural heritage of crafts from all across the country. One such person was Nelly Sethna who led a textile program in 1960’s. She not only was known for her love towards Kalamkari but was also an important change-maker for Crafts of India.

What is Kalamkari?

The term ‘Kalamkari’ literally means ‘work done with a pen.’ This term is inseparably attached to the painted and block-printed cotton and silk textiles, produced in certain parts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu! Today, two of the most prominent centres of kalamkari productions are Srikalahasti (Chittoor District) and Machilipatnam (Krishna District) in Andhra Pradesh.

While in Srikalahasti, the textiles are literally painted with pens made out of bamboo and cotton, in Machilipatnam, the line drawing done with a pen is transferred onto wooden blocks which are carved and then used to print fabric. In Machilipatnam, the production is carried out in karkhanas where the block makers, washers and printers work under the same roof.

Diving into Details- Who was Nelly Sethna?

Nelly as the head designer of Bombay Dyeing was an integral element in reviving Kalamkari to its present form. She introduced ‘Machhalipatnam’ style of Kalamkari away from just bed sheets into main stream fashion!

Nelly Sethna also connected this underrated art form with main stream cities like Mumbai and global communities to elevate this dying craft and to attain greater value while retaining its original identity.She was the one in 1960’s who helped hand-crafted Indian products gain a new Indian identity and she is responsible for the outlook of contemporary India!

After her death, her husband had offered her entire textile collection/work be given to NID and surprisingly the former director did not show any interest. That’s how NID lost the most historic pieces of craft and culture done by her.

No one knows now where Nelly Sethna’s intricate works are but a prominent veteran Kalamkari artist, J. Nirajan feels that in horde of commercialization ‘Machhalipatnam’ has ruined the entire prospect and unknowingly belittled the contributions made by Nelly Sethna.

Today these people in the name of Kalamkari produce lakhs of pieces by screen printing/rotary printing, which is the utter mockery of the rich cultural craft produced by Nelly Sethna.

Iti Tyagi, the founder of Craft Village, which is one of the most prominent Indian social enterprises, has been working relentlessly for the revival and upliftment of crafts and craftsperson. Iti has been putting in her best to revive the forgotten soul of the Indian craft spectrum and we can only wish her the best!