It was serendipity that led me to the exhibition on ‘Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art’ at the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDL Museum) one Saturday evening earlier this month! I call it serendipity for till that afternoon, I had neither aware of the existence of something like the Chamba Rumal nor of the exhibition.
It all started in my Indian Aesthetics class on Krishna Shringara by Prof. Harsha Dehejia. While giving examples of the depiction of Krishna Shringara in art, the embroidered Chamba Rumal was one of the things he mentioned and showed in his presentation. Ruta, one of my coursemates (and who was probably aware of my love for museums), told me about the exhibition on Chamba Rumal during the break. And of course, this meant that I had to go see the exhibition that very evening after class. 🙂
When I walked into the Special Projects Area of the BDL Museum and where the exhibition on Chamba Rumal was being held, the first thing I noticed was the display — large framed pieces hung on bamboo stands. The cool whitewashed walls, and the gleaming kota flooring was just perfect for the vibrant exhibits, which looked like paintings from a distance, but were actually exquisitely embroidered pieces, the Chamba Rumals.
The Chamba Rumals are embroidered square cloths from the Chamba region of Himachal Pradesh, a hill state in North India.
Though these embroidered rumals are to be found from all hill states, this art or craft came to be known as Chamba Rumals due to the patronage it received from the rulers of Chamba.
The word ‘rumal’ is usually used to refer to a handkerchief. But here, the word ‘rumal’ refers to a shape for ‘rumal’ also means square. The Chamba Rumals, which range in size from 1-4 feet square, are by no means handkerchiefs !
Traditionally, the Chamba Rumals were not mounted as works of art as I was saw them at the exhibition. They were used for covering platters of offerings to deities, and to cover gifts given during auspicious occasions. The rumals were also exchanged between the families of the bride and groom, during weddings, as a token of goodwill.
The embroidery style in the Chamba Rumals were inspired by the existing miniature paintings of the Pahari School. According to one of the information panels at the exhibition,
The oldest rumal is dated to the 16th century. It is believed that Bebe Nanki, the sister of Guru Nanak had embroidered it.
The Chamba Rumals were made from handwoven, unbleached mulmul or muslin. It was a joint effort of the Pahari miniature artists (usually men) who drew the outline in black charcoal and guided the colour themes, and the women who embroidered them using naturally dyed, untwisted pure silk floss. The women were either from the royal family or those belonging to the upper castes. The embroidery was done using a technique called do-rukha or double satin stitch technique, which ensured that the front and the reverse of the embroidery looked exactly the same. As you will see in the pictures, the colours used were always vibrant; sometimes gold or silver threads were also used..
While the drawing style was influenced by the Indo-Islamic idiom, the subject matter of the Pahari paintings were drawn from Hindu mythology. Indian literary texts like the Bhagawat Purana and the Geet Govinda were the most popular sources. Naturally, the life of Krishna was the most favoured theme for embroidery.
Sometimes, royal pastimes like hunting and playing dice were also depicted. Though historical narratives like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were also embroidered, they are quite rare. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a 400-year old Chamba Rumal that depicts the Kurukshetra war from the Mahabharata in detail.
All compositions included floral borders and motifs, birds and animals.
Presenting 15 photographs of some of the exhibits at the ‘Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art’. The shots portray both the rumals and details of some of them as well. Clicking on any picture will start a slide show, but I recommend that you start from the first one. Do remember to come back and read the rest of the post once you’re done with the photographs. 🙂
The Chamba Rumals were made till the early years of the 20th century after it which it went into decline due to diminishing patronage. An attempt to revive this art and craft from was made after Independence by Kamladevi Chattopadhyay. But the products were of poor quality and even poorer aesthetics and the attempt failed.
The second attempt was made decades later when the Delhi Crafts Council set up “Charu”, a training centre, in 2000 at Chamba. Through regular interactive workshops, inputs from designers to improve the skills of the artisans, and experimentation with new materials and designs, the Chamba Rumals have been infused with life once again. is an ongoing process.
As I walked through the exhibition all looking at one display after another, I had to keep reminding myself that the Chamba Rumals were not paintings, but embroideries. Dr. B.N. Goswamy, art historian and an expert on Indian miniatures has rightly pointed out that
visually the connection between the work of the Pahari painters and the rumals is so close… that in so many ways it can be seen as sahodara (born of the same womb). The line that separates them — art from craft — naturally thin in the Indian tradition, begins to turn truly faint.
So fine was the detailing that I could see doe-shaped eyes of Radha, the glowing blue skin of Krishna, his beautiful hands, his golden-yellow robes, the colourful squares of the chaupad board, the zari used for jewellery and clothes, musicians with their various instruments … and all of it left me breathless with delight.
Whle the whimsical depictions of colourful banana trees, one colour for each leaf, left me smiling. But the rumals depicting the Ras Lila of Krishna were the ones that were the most compelling, not to mention hypnotic as well. Perhaps it was the circular pattern, but I found it difficult to tear my eyes away from them.
I did mention about serendipity that led me to BDL Museum that evening at the beginning of this post. I must also mention that I was lucky to attend when I did for the exhibition wrapped up a couple of days later, even thought it was supposed to run till the end of this month. Serendipity or luck or a combination of both, I’m glad that I didn’t miss seeing painted embroideries or embroidered paintings that go by the name of Chamba rumals. 🙂
Tell me, what do you think the Chamba Rumals are: Painted Embroideries or Embroidered Paintings?
Note: All information given in this post about the Chamba Rumal is based on the exhibition panels. The observations are all mine.