A stitch in time

The art of making the Chamba rumal was all but extinct.
The Delhi Council of Craft has revived the tradition, which has now given jobs
to many poor persons in the hill town, reports Hemlata Aithani

A handkerchief is a handkerchief. But for the people of Chamba, a town in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, it is much more than that. In fact, it is an integral part of the local heritage, history, art and craft.

Women hard at work, embroidering exquisite Chamba rumals
Women hard at work, embroidering exquisite Chamba rumals Photo: WFS

Once patronised by the local rulers, the Chamba rumal of that time was a two to four square feet piece of cloth, embroidered with do-rukhi or double satin stitch. The do-rukhi technique ensured exact duplication of the image on the reverse. Noble or upper-class women with deft fingers would embroider, with impeccable finish, muslin (malmal), or plain cotton, with intricate motifs taken from nature, or the scriptures. It could be a hunting scene, a depiction of wild animals, or an image of the Hindu deity Krishna dancing with milkmaids. These rumals were used to cover platters as gifts for auspicious occasions, as offerings to a deity, or as tokens of goodwill to be exchanged during weddings.

When the system of royalty came to an end, so did this form of patronage. With no available market to sell their pieces of art, the artisans turned to other professions, crafting only the occasional rumal at special request. The common public was neither really aware of the uniqueness of the art form, nor was there anybody keen on paying large amounts for such fine craftsmanship.

Catering to the mass market meant a dropping of standards — the cloth used came to be of cheaper quality, the patterns became simpler, and the colours used lacked in subtlety. Clearly, the extraordinary art of making a Chamba rumal, as patronised by the royalty, was dying a gradual death.

Then the Delhi Council of Craft (DCC) stepped in. The DCC began its regeneration project for the rumal in the late 1990s. The one good thing was that people still knew how to do the do-rukhi stitches. All that was needed then was to re-train artisans, raise the quality of embroidery to acceptable standards, and improvise patterns to make it, once again, a signature art of the region.

Recalls Poornima Rai of the DCC: "The DCC first collected masterpieces of the Chamba rumal and reproduced 16 of them. For that the centre traced local women embroiderers, re-trained them, and worked on patterns and colour schemes to enhance their standards. All this was done so that the rumals could be sold in the market."

The Chamba rumal embroidery was unique as it required the replication of the pahari miniature painting on fine cotton cloth, with the embroidery being done with silk floss dyed in natural colours. "It was an amalgamation of painting, thread and the technique of the needle," observes Rai. It was this sense of uniqueness, which had to be put into context in order to popularise it.

The revival process graduated to opening a centre, Charu, in Chamba, in 2001. Women could now go there to train, build on their skill, and make the Chamba rumal on order. Currently, six women, who were trained at the Charu center, are now working full time.

This effort has been going on for more than 10 years, and has brought a dying art back to life. Recently, the DCC showcased this intricate and colourful art form at an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi Centre For Arts, New Delhi. Titled "The Chamba Rumal: Life To A Dying Art," the exhibition displayed recreated masterpieces, each one unique in its composition and colour combinations. Yet, most of them have a similar base of unbleached muslin cloth and a common theme of the legends of Lord Krishna.

Today, the craft has become an important source of income for its practitioners. Masto Devi (40), a state award winner, has been associated with the revival project for 15 years. She was among the 29 craftspersons who were retrained. Today Masto Devi proudly states: "As I evolved, I was appointed as a teacher at the centre. I now teach how to make Chamba rumals." Trainees get a stipend of Rs 500.

When Masto’s husband passed away, leaving her with three little children to look after, she joined the centre at Charu. "Initially, I used to work in my spare time from home. I used to earn Rs 1,000 a month to begin with. Then it gradually increased to Rs 2,000 and then to Rs 3,000 a month. Now my children are grown up. I get my salary of a teacher at the center, and apart from that, I am paid for the rumals I make. So, on an average, I earn Rs 10,000 a month," says the master craftswoman.

For Indu Sharma (28), the opening of the Charu centre was a blessing in disguise. She joined the centre in 2002 as a trainee when the responsibility of looking after her family fell entirely on her after the demise of her father. "I was the eldest among my five siblings. I thought if I took the training, I could support my family as I would get a stipend. I started with earning a small sum, Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000, a month, as I was very slow in embroidering. Later, the money went up to Rs 4,000 a month," says Indu, who continued to be associated with the project, even after getting married and having a son.

Then there are artists like Indu’s husband, Parikshit Sharma (32), a miniature painting artist, who can skillfully draw on fine handspun and handwoven unbleached muslin. It is only after he is done can the others take over, and bring the composition to life, using their needle and untwisted coloured silk floss. Despite being seasoned artisans, it takes two or three days for them to complete a rumal.

The income they bring home with all this hard work is well worth the effort and welcome at home. Even the husbands of the women working at Charu are supportive. Parikshit says: "Women associated with Charu are not only supporting themselves but are also contributing to the household income. It is an added income coming in. Moreover, women can embroider handkerchiefs anywhere at home or at the centre full time or part time."

Today, their labour of love and patience awaits bigger and more specialised markets. Wider public recognition of the worth of these "paintings in embroidery" is the first step. Of course, the DDC is planning to hold grand exhibitions in Varanasi and Mumbai next year, and it is also preparing to take the exquisite art to museums in the US in the near future. — WFS