The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Yarns of silk on cotton kerchiefs

When Usha Bhagat, vice-president of the Delhi Crafts Council, visited Chamba in 1978, she found that the eponymous rumal or kerchief that once flowered under royal patronage, had degenerated into a crude form of embroidery akin to calendar art. Then the Council took it upon itself to revive the dying art form. Collections in museums such as the Indian Museum, Calcutta, the National Museum, Delhi, and the Calico Museum of Textiles, were brought out, photographs taken and some woman of that region in Himachal Pradesh underwent training. The rumal demanded a certain skill in sewing the double satin stitch that allows the kerchiefs to be viewed from both sides.

The art of Chamba rumal, now being exhibited at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, has come full circle. From a feudal form it has become people art. Trained by the Council, many women of the region have gained the expertise to recreate museum pieces with a skill almost as honed as that of the ladies, including royalty, who originally made these.

The origin of this art form is not documented, but it is quite obvious that it bears a symbiotic relationship with the famed miniature paintings of Himachal. In fact, the yarns are the same — borrowed from various accounts of Krishna’s dalliances with his women and mythology where other members of the Hindu pantheon are the protagonists. Scenes of shikars, reminiscent of Persian miniatures, and couples playing chaupad or dice are also depicted.

With the decline of the Mughal empire, in the 18th century the rajas patronised the art form. Miniature artists did the sketches and women used untwisted silk to spin colourful yarns of their own, often with a touch of the folk, surprisingly similar to Madhubani. The end product resembles brilliant pietra dura, the kind seen in Taj Mahal, though there the motifs are mainly floral.

What upper class women did for leisure has become a means of supplementing the incomes of many housewives. Bhagat says initially, a major difficulty was finding the right kind of cloth and yarn for the rumals. Earlier, handspun and unbleached cotton was used. Now it is khadi or muslin, and instead of silk, synthetic yarn that has a fast colour is used. After four and a half years, 15 rumals were recreated and the first exhibition was held at the Delhi Crafts Museum, along with the originals in 1999. Now, five women work fulltime and in 2002, a training-cum-production centre, Charu, was formed. It is time for the Indian Museum to air its collection.

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