The arts and crafts of India are something that endows the country with a distinctive legacy, both in tradition and esteem. In fact, the unique range of authentic Indian handicrafts is so diverse that it caters to every identity within the ‘unity in diversity’ spectrum that makes up the country what it is in all her encompassments. From the north to the south or from east to the west, the many handicraft products of India have been unique and distinctive, carrying with them their own set regional identity even as they continue to enjoy fame and adulation the world over in all the exotic exuberance. Be it textiles like sarees and shawls or decorative crafts and toys or the many techniques of the arts like painting, weaving, knitting etc that find expression through these myriad works of the hand, each of these handcrafted pieces of tradition carries in them a certain beauty that makes them universally coveted specimens of a legacy that is as rich as it is distinctive.
One such handicraft that India is home to is simultaneously both a celebration of its variety in textile as well an ode to the impressive collection of the arts that it takes so much pride in. A mere handkerchief, if that is what you want to view it as, the Chamba rumal however is a rather exquisite piece of cloth, that is not what your usual hankies, all dainty and graceful with motifs or splattered with flowers in print or the ones bold and brazen of the skulls and the pirates that you commonly encounter. For handkerchiefs to be intricately embroidered might come across as some sort of extravagance uncalled for but it is exactly this essence of the beautifully handcrafted Chamba rumal that has rendered it its own distinctive identity, one so exclusive and unique that has led it to be granted a Geographic Indication status in 2007.
True to its name, the Chamba rumal is a handkerchief from the picturesque region of Chamba in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It therefore makes for an interesting aspect of its history that the earliest known form of this rumal has been traced instead to Punjab, preserved in the Gurudwara at Hoshiarour, a piece of history that had been hand made by the sister of Guru Nanak, Bebe Nanaki and was presented to him on his wedding during the 15th century. This wedding custom however isn’t one that might be interpreted as a mere show of love; in fact it has been customary of Chamba rumals to make for gifts as integral to weddings, exchanged by the bride and groom’s families as a sign of goodwill. These rumals have also been traditionally used to cover wedding gifts and continue to hold their place of importance in modern marriage ceremonies as well, where it makes for as integral a part of the bridal trousseau.
What makes the Chamba rumals so standout a specimen of what is otherwise just an ordinary piece of cloth is the particular form of embroidery it is characterised by. A captivating work of handicraft, that which takes after a form of Pahadi painting, the embroidery of Chamba rumals is in fact so vivid and elaborate, so much like a painting indeed, that has often led them to be referred to as ‘Paintings in Embroidery’. Distinguished by not just the particular thematic style but even a special technique of embroidery are these handkerchiefs that are known for the painstaking effort and patience they demand to yield such results that are attractive and different enough to make for an integral part of tradition that has been continuing since centuries. Called the dohara tanka or double satin stitch, this technique of embroidery that is utilised in depicting mostly elements from the religious epics on the Chamba rumals, endow it with a peculiar aesthetic, one that involves a dual stitch wherein both sides of the fabric are stitched simultaneous, creating distinct and starkly identical patterns on both faces of the fabric. Particularly effective in its attractiveness to the vision when viewed even from a distance of 10 feet or more, the Chamba rumals are also as distinctive in the choice of their material, that has traditionally seen either a very fine hand made silk from Punjab or the muslin of Bengal as the ‘canvas’ upon which naturally dyed silk floss works out myriad representations of mainly the mythological.
Also remarkable is the fact that while tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas find their way onto this square or rectangle piece of cloth, the particular art form in itself finds mention also in the Jataka tales in their popularity around the areas of Pathankot and Chamba, spanning hundreds of years, flourishing well into the 18th and the 19th centuries. As a part of the rich repertoire of pahadi art, that which encompasses a variety of forms from murals to paintings, the embroidery employed in the making of Chamba rumals while combines miniature art with impeccable needlework characterised embroidery, came also to be influenced by the Sikh style of painting in the early 19th century.
The artistic manifestation of the Chamba rumals apart, it also is the legacy associated with this form of hand made craft that makes it even more an identity steeped in distinction. As an art form that has been around for centuries and that which had been a heritage deriving from Kashmir in the dohara tanka method, it came to be incorporated in these iconic rumals most prominently by the erstwhile royalty themselves. Having received royal patronage since the 17th century, Chamba rumals were then embroidered upon by the queens and the royal ladies as token of gifts that came to be part of wedding dowries or marriage gifts, as well as ceremonial covers. It was only gradually that the craft began to discover its rooting among the common people as well, particularly the women who traditionally are entrusted with working out the embroidery along the lines of intricate designs eked out by expert artists using fine charcoal or brush, while suggesting also the use of specific colors for the same. The working of the embroidery is equally meticulous a task in intensity as well, done in silk threads like pat (naturally dyed untwisted pure silk floss) or badla (silver gilt) on unbleached muslin, with the threads needed to be bereft of any knots whatsoever for the design to be equally ‘displayable’ on either side. After completing the embroidery, which encompasses themes like Krishna’s Raas Leela, events from Gita Govinda, Bhagavat Purana as well as images of Lord Vishnu, Lordess Lakshmi, Radha-Krishna and Shiva-Parvati, while drawing at a later time also from frescoes done in the Rang Mahal of Chamba, the Chamba rumals are further stitched with a border of about 2 to 4 inches on all sides.
But while Chamba rumals today refer exclusively to this handkerchief which is unique already in being the only such noteworthy type of it, the term in fact can be categorised as a folk style of embroidery technique that which extends across various artworks like double-sided frames, handkerchiefs, covers, belts, sheets, shawls, dupattas, fans. The significance that the embroidery style came to assume in weddings derive also partly from the fact that they were intended to showcase the bride’s skills to the groom’s family. When used as covers, the Chamba rumal can either be circular as in the Chaabru which is hung behind the deity in temples or rectangular as the Chandoa that is draped behind idols or even a square cover called the dhaaknu. Flourishing during the times of the Mughal rulers and in some times beyond that era, the Chamba rumals however began to lose their appeal as a craft form as they ceased enjoying any form of royal patronage. Cheaper imitation products that were easier to produce also infiltrated into markets, making it further difficult for the Chamba rumal to retain its sheen. Revival of this one of a kind handicraft ensued only in much modern times, the 1970s to be precise, with initiatives by independent artists as well as organisations beginning to yield positive results. Today, the Victoria Albert Museum in London houses a Chamba rumal depicting the Kurukshetra war in its embroidery, that was gifted to the British in 1883 by Raja Gopal Singh as a specimen of exquisite craftsmanship, so intricate in its perfection that sees a single piece of these extraordinary handkerchiefs command a mind boggling Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 in all their authenticity!