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Craft Revival: A Look At The Chamba Rumal's Glorious Past And Resurgence

On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, you may come across a beautifully embroidered piece of cloth depicting the Kurukshetra War. It hangs magnificently on the wall where it stays framed and intact, a gift sent to the British in 1833 from Raja Gopal Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Chamba.

Closer home, you can find a different rendering of the cloth belonging to the same textile. Conserved in the Gurdaspur Gurudwara in Punjab, it is said to be the very cloth gifted to Guru Nanak on his wedding in the 15th century, embroidered and presented by his sister Bebe Nanki. The piece of cloth in discussion is known as the Chamba Rumal, rumal being the hindi word for handkerchief, and Chamba denoting its place of origin. 

Image Courtesy: Himachal Online
Image Courtesy: Himachal Online

Chamba Rumal: A Brief Design History

Tucked away in a picturesque valley of Himachal lies Chamba, where the traditional textile was born and once popular. The exquisitely embroidered textile was not just made by artisans, but also by women in the upper echelons of society, the former being accountable for tracing the designs using charcoal or brush, and the latter for embroidering it. 

Young girls too, honed their skills, embellishing the cloth to present it to their partners on their wedding day. One of the most popular stitches used to create the Chamba Rumal was the ‘do-rukha tanka’ or the double satin stitch, which created a similar depiction on both sides of the cloth. 

Image Courtesy: V&A Museum
Image Courtesy: V&A Museum

Popular Motifs And Depictions

The textile was immensely popular and it helped that Raja Umed Singh (1748-1768) was a patron of the cause, as were his successors who ruled after. In fact, it was Raja Bhuri Singh who back in 1907, helped establish training centres for women, promoting the art form. 

A look at the Chamba Rumal will tell you much about its glorious past; motifs of extensive flora and fauna in motion made using silk threads mark the hand-spun muslin, as do geometric patterns in vivid colours of red, green, blue and more. Most of them depict scenes from the Puranas, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. It is an artful way of narrating stories from religious texts. 

Image Courtesy: DCC on Instagram
Image Courtesy: DCC on Instagram

Decline & Revival Efforts

It continued to be made in the region until the early part of the 20th century until it saw a decline due to lack of patronage, a result of the acquisition of all princely states. 

Facing a near-extinct state, the textile form was sold as a commonplace item for a while, and only after the late Usha Bhagat spotted it on a visit to Himachal was a step taken to elevate it to its former glory. Ms Bhagat, an associate of Indira Gandhi, approached the Delhi Council of Crafts to work towards its revival, an initiative that was finally undertaken in 1992. The first exhibition of recreated rumals was showcased by the DCC in the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, raising awareness about the dying textile form. Another exhibit titled ‘Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art’ toured across a number of cities in India, highlighting it in some cities for the first time. Through Charu, DCC’s design centre dedicated to impart knowledge about the aesthetics of the art form, Chamba Rumal has seen a resurgence in its appeal. Although, much needs to be done to counter the issues that remain. 

Image Courtesy: DCC on Instagram
Image Courtesy: DCC on Instagram

Status Today

Besides the Delhi Craft Council’s continuous efforts, and creation of newer markets, the local women of Chamba continue to work on the textile, albeit in smaller numbers. Even today, it is customary for a local bride to have the Chamba Rumal in her bridal trousseau, and the textile form continues to be used to cover offerings to the deity. Additionally, the more popular rectangle version called Chandoa is draped behind idols, while Chhabru, the circular iteration of is also seen in temples. Securing the Geographical Indication patent in 2007 has helped restrain the sale of counterfeit products, giving the authentic art an indispensable boost. 

Besides NGOs such as Samvedna Culture and Heritage Trust which exhibit and hold workshops related to the Chamba Rumal, premier institutes such as the National Institute of Fashion Technology also include it in their curriculum. It is an essential approach to impart knowledge to the young minds in design. 

Needless to say, in a world where everyone has eyes for the neverending cycles of fast fashion, each and every step taken to restore the illustrious textile counts. 

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