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Once upon a double satin stitch

The Crafts Council has taken it upon itself to revive the exquisite art of the Chamba Rumal of Himachal Pradesh.

Award-winner Masto Devi with her work.

WHAT IS a Chamba Rumal? What does its revival by the Delhi Craft Council (DCC) signify? It was in search of answers to these questions that we visited the ongoing Kamala multi-event festival (April 3 to 7) at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, organised by the Chennai-based Crafts Council of India (CCI) to mark the birth centenary of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who launched the post-Independence crafts renaissance.

Originally from the princely hill states of Chamba, Kangra, Basohli and others, now integrated into Himachal Pradesh, this square cloth has been described as the folk embroidered avatar of the Pahari miniature painting. Usha Bhagat, Honorary Vice-President of the DCC, explains: "The oldest dated rumal can be traced back to the 16th Century, and is said to have been embroidered by Bebe Nanki, the sister of Guru Nanak. It probably derives its name from the Chamba royal family, which was a major patron of the art. Today, even London's Victoria and Albert Museum has a piece depicting the battle of Kurukshetra."

The DCC's project to revive the dying craft proved heartening enough for it to host a 1999 exhibition in the capital of 15 exquisite rumals done over two-and-a-half years. What do they depict? The Raaslila of Krishna and his gopis around a central Vishnu, their colourful interactions held within a floral border. An imaginative detailing of Jagannatha at Puri, replete with offerings at the shrine outlined architecturally. The hurly-burly of the Godhuli hour, when cattle return homewards. A geometrically perfect delineation of a game of Chaupad. And other related themes executed with finesse, especially of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Detail of the exquisite embroidery.

Modelled on originals photographed at the rumals on display at the Bhuri Singh Museum (named after an early 20th Century raja who patronised the art) at Chamba, Kolkata's Indian Museum, the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad, the Crafts Museum and National Museum in Delhi, the art lives on today. Since 1999, the exhibition has travelled to Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chamba, and Shimla, before currently touching Bangalore, en route to Kolkata.

Ms. Bhagat traces the project's origins to her 1978 visit to Chamba town, on the banks of the Ravi. Disappointed by the shoddy blue terycot pillow covers and other ware turned out in lieu of these exquisite creations, she infused her colleagues at the DCC with fire enough to explore the possibility of a revival. Sourcing originals from far and wide, photographing each one in detail, they spent two years picking the right materials, finally homing in on unbleached thick muslin or thin khadi. But what of the thread? Unable to source the silken floss, the traditional embroiderers finally approved of untreated synthetic thread in reels with a wide-ranging palette.

As art historian B.N. Goswamy notes in the Chamba Rumal catalogue: "The drawings are so finely done, so self-assured, that it is difficult to conceive of them as being done by amateur hands." Who did them, then? Conventional wisdom suggests the Pahari miniature masters, possibly summoned to a palace or a royal household, where aristocratic ladies filled in sophisticated colours with delicate silken threads, through double satin stitch or dorukha, equally fine to the eye and touch on both sides of the cloth.

What of the picture today? Masto Devi from Sirol village in Chamba was honoured on April 3 with the CCI's Kamaladevi Award 2003 for her embroidery skills. Her contribution to the Chamba Rumal exhibition testifies to the reasons why — the delicate stitches in panels on Ashtanayika, Raasamandal with female musicians in the corners, four episodes from the Gita Govinda, and Rukmini Haran. By her side is Chhimbi Devi, who drew a Godhuli scene and Krishna's wedding with her needle as her brush. She was recognised as a Navodit Shilpi at the festival.

How central is the embroidery to the pattern of their lives? Working on another Jagannatha panel, Masto Devi recalls the sudden death of her husband seven years ago, when her three children were still young.

Chhimbi Devi.

While working at a unit that makes pickles and juices, she attended a month-long course in dorukha, conducted by local authorities. "Yeh bahut mehnat ka kaam hai (this is very laborious work)," she confides between stitches. "But I do it between chores to keep my hearth burning."

Today's Chamba Rumals are mainly used to decorate the household, says Chhimbi Devi. "Yeh to sajavat ke liye hai," she says, even as she tries to pacify her little son. "We do it because we enjoy it, but more to make ends meet."

The early Chamba Rumals had a different social role, though. Some Pahari miniatures depict gifts covered with these embroidered pieces of cloth being exchanged during wedding rituals. They doubled as coverings for offerings to the gods, to the king or his officials.

What of its future? As the DCC continues to revive new themes, it has found discerning buyers, such as the Garden Mills family in Surat, which ordered the entire set of the rumals displayed at Mumbai. Of the takings, each embroiderer gets a share, as does miniature painter Vijay Sharma of the Chamba Museum, who renders the outlines on cloth.

Will it enable Masto Devi to embroider on as a viable alternative? "I get about Rs. 3,000 for every piece I complete," she says, shyly. That's a good price. I take between two to four months for each, depending on the details in it."

If the art of the Chamba Rumal lives on beyond museums for another generation or two, it could spell regeneration. For Masto Devi and others like her in an era without feudal patronage. That's the story of hope she embroiders in double satin stitch every evening, as her children study their school texts.


Photos: K. Bhagya Prakash

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