Tuesday, 4 May 2010
A handkerchief is a handkerchief. But it’s much more than that for people in Chamba town of India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state. It’s Chamba Rumal (handkerchief) —
an integral part of local heritage and art and craft.
Once patronised by the rulers of Chamba, embroidering famous squares and rectangles of 2 to 4 square feet with ‘do-rukhi’ or double satin stitch was at its zenith. The ‘do-rukhi’ technique “ensured exact duplication of the image on the reverse”. Noble or upper class women with their adept fingers would embroider muslin, malmal or plain cotton cloth with intricate motifs, designs of nature, wild animals, hunting or mainly Hindu deity Krishna and his dance with milkmaids with impeccable finish.
These ‘rumals’ were used to cover platters as gifts for auspicious occasions, offering to a deity or to exchange them as a token of goodwill during weddings.
As kings were gone, so were the patrons of the art. With no available market to sell these pieces of art, artisans turned to other professions or did it only when occasions arose. In free India common public was neither much aware of the uniqueness of the art nor had interest in paying big amounts for the craftsmanship.
Rumals were still ubiquitous but they lost their artistic fineness and, as a result, appeal. They were now cheap pieces of cloth with low standards of colourful patterns on them. The art of doing Chamba rumal was dying a gradual death until Delhi Council of Craft (DCCC) stepped in.
The DCC began a regeneration project in the late 1990s. One good thing while reviving the art was that people still knew how to do the ‘do-rukhi’ stitches. All it required was to retrain artisans, raise the quality of embroidery to acceptable standards and improvise patterns to make it once again a signature art of Chamba.
“Thus, the DCC first collected masterpieces of Chamba ‘rumal’ and reproduced 16 of them. For that the centre traced local women embroiders, retrained them and worked on patterns and their colour schemes to enhance their standards to be able to be sold in the market,” said Poornima Rai of the DCC.
Chamba ‘rumal’ embroidery was unique as it would need to replicate or draw pahari miniature paintings on a piece of fine cotton cloth first then embroider upon them with silk floss dyed in natural colours.
“It was an amalgamation of painting, thread and the technique of the needle,” added Rai. It was this sense of uniqueness which had to be put into the context in order to popularise this exceptional art.
The revival process graduated to opening a centre, Charu, in Chamba in 2001.Women would come here to train, build on their skill and make Chamba ‘rumal’ on order.
Over a decade long efforts have seen the dying art springing back to life. New Delhi is getting a taste of it as the DCC has put up an exhibition at Indira Gandhi Centre For Arts.
The exhibition called ‘The Chamba Rumal: Life to a dying art’ has on display recreated masterpieces, each one unique in its art composition and colour combination and of course to the artiste. Yet, most of them have a similar base of unbleached muslin cloth and the theme based on the legends of Krishna.
“These artistes have combined beauty with everyday life. I really liked the painting of animals. They have used vibrant colours and created a joyful life. It’s a feast to eyes,” said Prabha Chand, who had come to visit the exhibition
Commending the efforts, Padmini Vipin, a visitor said, “It’s outstanding to revive the art. This is an exemplary work. I think all it needs is to be marketed really well.”
Five women embroiders and a miniature painting artist of Charu have also come down to Delhi from Chamba to show what it takes to make a ‘rumal’. Masto Devi, 40, a state award winner, has been associated with the revival project for 15 years. She was among 29 craftsperson who were retrained. The trainees would get a stipend of Rs500 each.
“Later, I was appointed as a teacher at the centre. I now teach and make Chamba ‘rumal’,” says she. The project is also directly helping women to earn their living through this traditional art.
Masto joined the centre when her husband passed away and had three little kids to look after.
“Initially I used to work in my spare time from home. I used to earn Rs1,000 a month to begin with then it gradually increased to Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 a month. Now my children are grown up. I get my salary of a teacher at the centre and apart from that I’m paid for whatever individual ‘rumal’ I make. So in a way I earn Rs10,000 a month on an average,” said Masto Devi while putting her needle through a handkerchief.
For Indu Sharma,28, opening of Charu was a blessing in disguise. She joined the centre in 2002 as a trainee when the responsibility of looking after her family fell on her after the demise of her father.
“I was the eldest among my five siblings. I thought if I take training I can support my family as I would get stipend. Later, I started earning Rs1,500 to Rs2,000 a month as I was very slow in embroidering. But later I started earning Rs 4,000 a month,” says Indu who is still associated with the project after getting married and having a son.
Parikshit Sharma, a miniature paining artist, skillfully draws on fine handspun and hand woven unbleached muslin for women to embroider upon those ‘compositions using untwisted coloured silk floss’.
While here in Delhi they are willingly imparting their skills to anyone who is interested in the art. Arudhana Jain is one such who is learning the long and short of the stitches. She has already got paintings drawn on a piece of cloth she has got with her.
“I like this style of embroidery very much. I’m learning the basics of the embroidery,” says she but wonders if she’d be able to finish her handkerchief in a year or so?
But those seasoned artisans who are quick to complete a ‘rumal’ in two-three days time are waiting for a bigger and specialised market to reach the connoisseurs of Chamba ‘rumals’ known as “paintings in embroidery”.