Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CRAFT: March 21, 1999
Life to a dying art
The embroidery art form of the Chamba rumal originated and flourished in the erstwhile princely hill states of Chamba, Kangra, Basholi and nearby states which are not a part of Himachal Pradesh. Though practised throughout this region, the craft came to be associated specifically with Chamba owing to the patronage given by the rulers of the area as well as to the quality of its craftsmanship. The artistic style of the Pahari miniature paintings which was influenced by Mughal Miniatures, was reflected in the rumals which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. The embroidery on the rumal is the image of a miniature painting on fabric. Dr. Stella Kramrish observed that Chamba rumals are like paintings translated into embroidery.
The creations came to be termed as rumals or scarves, as they were mainly produced in a square format. The rumals reflected the artistic expression of the women of the household and were used to cover gifts and offerings. There are Pahari miniature paintings in existence, which show gifts covered with Chamba rumals being exchanged between the families of the bride and groom. Rumals were also used to cover offerings to the gods and while presenting gifts to the ruler or other high officials.
Chamba rumals were done by upper class women and women of royalty. These women developed a level of sophistication and stylisation that brought the embroidery into the realm of art. From the rumals available of this period, it is apparent that the women had the use of trained miniature artists who drew the theme of the rumal in charcoal and also provided guiding colour schemes. The borders, the floral ornamentation, the animals portrayed and the depiction of the theme reflected the sophistication of miniature paintings.
Courtesy National Museum.
The subject of the embroideries have been based mainly on religious themes comprising Hindu deities, floral motifs, birds and animals. The Raas Mandal and Krishna theme have been particularly favoured. The fabric used for the embroidery was normally hand-spun or hand-woven unbleached mul-mul or fine khaddar produced in Punjab. The rumal varied in size from one and a half to four feet in size. The embroidery itself was done in a double satin-stitch called Do-Rukha. Its beauty lies in the fact that the stitch becomes reversible and embroidery viewed from both sides is similar and equally effective. The rumal also owes a debt to Phulkari embroidery of Punjab. In both cases untwisted silk yarn was used. The colours of thread used in the Chamba rumal varied and no rumal was ever embroidered in a single colour. In the folk style, the colours used tended to be bright and bold and included pink, lemon yellow, purple and green. The more sophisticated colour palette included ochre, dark green, blue and paler shades.
Chamba rumals were being made till the early part of this century but after the decline of the feudal system, this art form began to languish. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was impressed by Chamba rumal and when she was the Chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board, the Board took interest in reviving this art form.
Later, the Himachal Pradesh Government set up a centre for promoting and training in the local crafts of the region. But owing to official disinterest and non imaginative approach, the art of Chamba rumal was being looked upon as mere embroidery. Synthetic and coloured cloth and wrong embroidery threads in gaudy colours were used to make pillow covers, napkins and other such utility items. The art that was once distinguished by grace and naive charm had been reduced to calender art.
In the last few years, the rumals' importance is being gradually realised in Chamba. Some women have started embroidering them based on earlier designs. While they are skilled in embroidery, the cloth, threads and colours used as well as the compositions lack in artistry.
Courtesy Pradeep Dasgupta / Delhi Crafts Council
Realising the importance of this art form, the Delhi Crafts Council decided to take up the project of reviving these rumals. They felt that to begin with, efforts should be made to reproduce some rumals from the collection available at the Museum. This would help create an awareness not only among craftspersons in Chamba, but also among the cognoscenti and general public, that it is possible for the form to continue even under changed circumstances.
Many old rumals are in museum collections all over the country like the Bhuri Singh Museum (Chamba), Government Museum (Shimla), Indian Museum (Calcutta), National Museum and Crafts Museum (New Delhi), as well as at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). The Council's first steps were to collect a lot of textual and photographic material on these old rumals.
The Delhi Crafts Council has been working on this project for some years. Initial difficulties lay in finding the right fabric and yarn for embroidery. With changed times it is not always possible to duplicate the material exactly, but efforts have been made to bring the rumals as close to the originals as possible. In the next few months, the Council hopes to arrange an exhibition of some of the newly reproduced rumals. The work would provide stimulation and encouragement to the crafts people of Chamba. The public would also get a glimpse into a beautiful art of Chamba rumals which was almost lost.
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