12 February 2013

Pictorial Embroidery of Chamba Rumals

Chamba – a northwestern district in Himachal Pradesh is particularly famous for its unique and charming embroidered rumals. The word ‘rumal’ means handkerchief, however the Chamba Rumals are not mere handkerchiefs; they play a significant role in various social occasions in the region. This beautiful form of embroidery, done on handspun cloth with silk threads, is greatly inspired by the different pahari paintings (mountain paintings).

The origin of this art form can be traced back to 17th - 18th century in the former Chamba state. Traditionally, it is a custom to gift these beautifully embroidered rumals as a part of the wedding trousseau. Also, these are used for wrapping gifts or covering gifts, placed on trays and baskets, on special occasions as weddings, festivals or fairs. Hence, wedding scenes is a popular theme in the designs. It was considered an integral part of the dowry without which a wedding ceremony was incomplete. Even today it plays an important part of the wedding trousseau and sometimes it is also used for wrapping gifts and presenting during important social occasions. Men and women wear these beautifully embroidered rumals on their shoulders and the more delicate and intricate designs on the rich cloth are seen as a symbol of status.

Creating a Chamba rumal: The cloth used to make Chamba Rumals is mostly unbleached cotton (khaddar) or fine muslin cloth, which is off-white in color; the light-coloured off-white base is important for highlighting the vibrant silk threads used in the embroidery. The artist first visualizes the theme and draws the initial outline of the design with charcoal on the cloth. During this stage the artist also decides the colors that will be used for filling up the designs. The actual embroidery is done by the womenfolk who follow the outlines drawn by the miniature artist.

The designs used are highly inspired by the miniature pahari paintings and consist of vibrant motifs and designs, which include birds, animals, decorative plants and flowers that form an important part of this visual handicraft. The designs and motifs are carefully laid down to form beautiful compositions, which are then filled in with untwisted silk threads, also called ‘pat’. The commonly used colors in a Chamba rumal are purple, bright pink, carmine, deep red, orange, brown, shades of green, yellow, blue along with black and white. In some of the old rumals, silver wire or ‘tilla’ can also be found.

One of the unique features of the Chamba rumals is that the design can be viewed from both sides and there is no backside. For this a unique form of stitching, the ‘do-rukha’ or the double-satin stitch is mainly used. It is usually not found in other forms of traditional Indian embroidery; the ‘do-rukha’ or the double-satin stitch gives an even finish on both sides with no visible knots. A simple stitch with a black silk thread, the ‘dandi tanka’ or the stem stitch is finally used to outline the designs. This is characteristic of the Chamba rumal embroidery. An important part of the pahari painting is the fine black outline; similarly the black silk thread is used in the embroidery to give the effect of a pahari painting. Apart from these, other form of stitches like the buttonhole stitch, cross-stitch, long and short stitch, herring bone stitch along with pattern darning is also used. The result is a flat and smooth finish that gives the embroidery the look of a miniature painting.

This art form emulates the creative expressions and the innermost feelings of the womenfolk in Chamba. This magnificent art and the skill associated with it is slowly fading away and efforts are being made to re-examine their marketing strategy and new markets and methods of distribution, in an effort to promote the artistic, social and cultural worth of this art and revive the culture.

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