Chamba Rumal Narrating the tales of beauty, love, devotion and passion

Anil Paba
Chamba rumals are pieces of fine or coarse textile that have been skillfully embroidered in slight relief with coloured untwisted silk thread to flower in attractive designs .On account of the perishable nature of cloth, it is not possible to trace the origins and development of embroidery. It is believed that, embroidery art and crafts form of Chamba rumal originated in the principal hill states of Chamba, Kangra, Basholi(in Jammu) and all over the Pahari region in centuries gone by, and the sole credit for preserving the tradition goes to the rural women. The splendid piece of embroidery art became popular as “Painting by Needle.” Earlier, it was made in the entire area of Himachal Pradesh, i.e., Kangra, Kullu, Mandi, Billaspur, Nurpur, Basohli, Jammu, and other Pahari regions, Guler, Hoshiarpur, etc.; but later on, this art got limited to the Chamba region and became popular as Chamba Rumal.
Chamba is a small valley in the western Himalayas between the North latitudes of 32° 11′ 30″ and 30° 13′ 6″ and the East longitudes of 75° 49′ and 77° 3′, with an area roughly equal to that of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. It overlooks the swiftly flowing river Ravi on one side and clings to the great Himalayan ranges on the other. Chamba kingdom was ruled by Rajput kings. Raja Ummed Singh (1748-1768 CE) was a benefactor of the “Chamba Rumal” art form, and this patronage continued under his successors. In 1907, Raja Bhuri Singh established training centres for women, and this became popularised as the Do-Rukha Tanka, or double satin stitch cloth. The Raja presented these rumals to the British officials in 1911, leaving them stunned by their beauty. Following that, the rumals became known as Chmba rumal.
As museum pieces, wall hangings, and pictorial examples of a phase and aspect of Indian arts and crafts, the Chamba Rumals have in recent time come to acquire a name and fame as they were declared World Heritage by UNESCO on October 31, 2008.
Gifting embroidered rumals at a girl’s wedding was customary in the hills and valleys of Himachal Pradesh. The rumal was an essential part of the bride’s dowry, and she was expected to have learned this craft at a very young age. The embroidery was effected by a double satin stitch carried forward and backward alternately, done simultaneously on the two sides, and filled up, making the embroidered fold on both faces appear equally effective and similar in content; this is technically known as dorukh. This satin stitch is generally used for covering large, continuous patterns spread over a wide surface without pressing the cloth. The untwisted and dyed silk thread of a wide variety of colours used in this kind of embroidery leaves the figures and patterns smooth and glossy and equally graceful on sides, the positive and the negative.
The outline drawn is usually filled in with fine charcoal and, in general practice, black silk threads in simple stem stitch. While, however, this is mostly true in patterns and human figures, it is also minute and delicate in floral and plant motifs.
The cloth used for this purpose is a kind of mala, a hand-spun thin fabric mainly manufactured in the Punjab. These specially delicate and thin threads are made in Sialkot, Amritsar, and Ludhiana. A slightly different variety of cloth used as the base for these was the Khaddar, also hand-woven with hand-spun yarn. Perhaps a more sophisticated variety was the machine-made fine cloth used for this purpose more often in later specimens. The cloth is generally an unbleached fabric. Traces of these drawings are often left on an unfinished and unembroidered portion of a rumal.
In Chamba, there are two ways to work: classical or miniature designs and folk designs. In the folk style, figures are not well shaped but have only a basic structure, like a circle for a face with a basic outline of the eyes, where precision is not very important. The designs primarily depicted mythological scenes from Greek mythology.
Stories of local folklore, scriptures, and geometrical designs are very popular. The classical miniature style is where the figures are very proportionate, like in the Kangra and Chamba schools of paintings. When the miniature style of Chamba rumal emerged during the 17th century, these paintings were manifested in the rumals. The themes used are related to poetry based on rasas, among which Shingar is most popular. Nayak-Nayika, Krishana and Radha, and Gita Govinda Tales (Gita Govindan) is a 12th-century text on Krishana by the poet Jayadeva. The common themes often seen in Chamba rumals are : RASMANDALA, KALIA AANA, RAGA RAGANI, and MINJAR MELA (a famous fair in Chamba district)
Chamba embroidery is mainly done by the women of the upper classes, and the designs are based on nature, animals, birds, and trees, while the themes revolve around deities and depict scenes of such as Shiva, Ganesha, Durga, Parvati, and Lakshmi, as well as the life of Vishnu in his avatars as Krishna and Rama.
The colours used are varied and large in number. No Chamba rumal is available in a single color.The preponderance of blue in some of the earlier pieces is remarkable. Krishna, whenever he is depicted bare-bodied, is embroidered blue, except in a few cases where the colour is mauve. Green, sky blue, orange, and yellow are some of the other colours of the thread frequently used in these embroidery projects. In the choice of colours, however, it must be said that the guiding principle was variety rather than appropriateness.
Sometimes a whole poetic verse is stitched on to the rumal describing the subject, usually a scene from Krishana’s life, as in a piece in the collections of the Lahore museum, now in Pakistan. So far as dated and dateable pieces of rumal are considered, the earliest belongs to the late 16th century A.D. A historical person, Babey Nanki, sister of Guru Nanak, is said to have embroidered in Chamba techniques on a piece now preserved in the historic Sikh shrine in Gurdaspur district, Punjab.
Revival and Future:
The art form fell into decline when it lost the royal patronage that it once enjoyed. Many individuals are making efforts to revive the dying tradition of embroidering Chamba rumals. Today, it has been resurrected by many NGOs and the Government, primarily by the women of Chamba. Freedom fighter and craft revivalist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was among the earliest to take up the onus of keeping the arts alive in the years post-independence.
Lalita Vakil is a well-known Indian embroidery artist who has contributed to the preservation and promotion of Chamba Rumal, a traditional form of handkerchief embroidery from the Himachal Pradesh district of Chamba.70 years old, Vakil has been awarded the Padma Shri in 2022 by the Government of India for her contribution in the field of art, particularly in reviving the dwindling art of Chamba Rumal.
In 1992, the Delhi Craft Council (DCC) stepped in to revive the dying art and promote the little-known art at a national level. Their first exhibition in 1999 showcased the recreated Rumal and travelled to many cities around the country. One of the most significant recent impetuses to the art came in 2007, when the Geographical Indications registry granted the Chamba Rumal the Geographical Indications (GI) patent. It helped to curb the sale of inauthentic items and also brought the art back into the spotlight.
(The author is Director Amar Santosh, Museum Udhampur. Co-convener INTACH Sub-Chapter Udhampur)