Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chamba Rumal

‘Firdous Handicrafts’ said the board of the shop down a narrow lane ahead of the Main Market in Chamba town. The gracious lady behind its counter was Siraj Begum, an award-winning artiste who had been honoured for her specialisation in Chamba Rumal, which I had heard was a unique style of embroidery. There were numerous pieces of the stitch-craft displayed at her small showroom and on  first glance they seemed to be simple stem-stitch embroidery. But it was not as rudimentary as it seemed. It indeed was distinctive. The technique of embroidery was double stem-stitch known as ‘dou-rukha’ the uniqueness lying in the design on either side being alike, making it reversible in use. Being a master artiste, Siraj Begum was well-versed in the history of her craft and wove a fascinating tale on the rumal’s journey.

Embellished squares
Chamba Rumal is an illustrative skill of embroidery whose origin is believed to date back to the 16th -17th century, to the royal kingdom of Chamba, in Himachal Pradesh’s north-eastern region. The embroidered pieces were called ‘rumals’ or handkerchiefs as they were usually done on square pieces of cloth.
But that’s where its similarity with a handkerchief ends. The richly embellished Chamba Rumals can be as small as 6” x 6” or as large as 5’ x 5’. These were, and continue to be,  used to cover offerings made to gods and dieties, gifts presented to royalty, weddings platters, other ritualistic items at ceremonial events like festivals and religious fairs. Moreover, traditionally it is a part of the bride’s trousseau and it's her grandmother who especially embroiders it for the marriage.
The lineage of the rumal dates back to the Pahari School of painting established by miniature artists who were given patronage by Chamba rulers after the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the mid-18th century. The painters translated their art on to fabric and this stimulated the women of the region who took up the craft with gusto. The motifs they embroidered were largely folk style depiction of Hindu mythology and social themes. “With time the designs have come to stay and even today only a slight variation in theme can be found on the rumals that continue to exhibit original patterns, with only the colour combination having become slightly urban,” asserts Siraj Begum.

Stitch art
The cloth used for the embroidery is usually hand woven muslin. The ground fabric is white or cream and it’s the embroidery threads—handspun silk strands dyed in natural colours—that provide the arresting contrast. As the initial step, the design is drawn or traced after which the filling of figures, flora and fauna is done in dense stem stitch in such a manner that an identical pattern appears uniformly on both sides of the cloth. Upon completion, the outlines and details like facial features, pleats of a lehnga etc are worked out in with black thread making use of basic or double running stitch depending on the cloth used, as in the instance of silk. For esteemed functions and for royalty the rumals were embroidered on silk, a delicate fabric on which the artiste needed to do extremely small double-running or darning stitch. The task was laborious but the final result in silk would have the magnificence of a painting.
Krishna Ras Leela, a beautiful circular pattern of Lord Krishna with the gopis, is a dominating motif on the Chamba Rumal. In all shops across Chamba town this design was found and classically is a hot seller. Siraj Begum too had plenty of colour combinations on offer in the motif, though she admitted that it was in vibrant folkish hues that the design looked best and not in nouveau shades. Seeing the difference in presentation I couldn’t agree more. The other designs that have stood the test of time are those of mythological episodes, especially from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, nayika (maiden), deer hunting, forest scenes with lots of trees and animals, Shiva-Parvati, Radha-Krishna, and the typically dressed Gaddi-Gaddan with lamb (shepherd couple). Chamba’s famous Minjar Fair also finds prominence on the rumal. The motifs are bordered by floral patterns, highlighting the Mughal influence in design.

New trends
Moving on from handkerchief shapes, whose use is confined to an item of décor, other products in this craft now include a variety in apparel. The restricted available range includes panelled skirts, stoles, scarves, dupattas, kurtas and saree blouses.
The Chamba Rumal was registered under Geographical Indications (GIs) of Goods Act in end 2008. The Union Government’s Geographical Registry in Chennai issued a certificate in this regard in its response to an application for registration by the Himachal Pradesh Science, Technology and Environment Department. According to standard, “the registration of GI is akin to a community patent in which case in place of an individual, the whole community of artisans, producers and other stakeholders of a GI get benefitted. This registration will grant legal protection to the embroiders of Chamba Rumal, which in turn will prevent unauthorised production and use of the term ‘Chamba Rumal’ by any producer outside the geographical region of Chamba”.

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