Tag Archives: weaving

Chamba Rumal: Paintings in Embroidery

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When we say Rumal, a small square piece of cloth or handkerchief, an everyday use item, flashes in front of our eyes. Rumal is the Persian word for kerchief…but this Chamba Rumal is not used for wiping hands and faces; it is a pure form of art, culture, and heritage — a perfect display of Himalayan embroidery and crafts traditions. ’The Chamba Rumal gets its name from Chamba, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, where it has been practiced for centuries and patronized by the kings of Himachal Pradesh. This region is also known for its miniature Pahari (mountain) paintings.

Originating from the Chamba Valley, a flourishing 18th and early 20th-century mountainous region of North India, the Chamba Rumal is a form of hand embroidery.  Due to the theme being similar to those painted on miniature paintings, it has also been called ‘Paintings in Embroidery’.

Chamba Rumal embroidery process (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)
Chamba Rumal embroidery process (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)

The History 

Queens and ladies of royal families use to do Chamba Rumal embroidery in the 17th century for wedding dowries, important gifts, and ceremonial coverings. It was a tradition in the Royal houses that as a gesture of goodwill, the bride and groom’s families would gift it to each other. Gradually local craft people, especially women, began practicing the art and it transitioned outside the palace walls.  

In the 16th century, Bebe Nanki, sister of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak, reportedly embroidered a Chumba Rumal and that piece was preserved in the state’s Hoshiarpur shrine. Another exquisite piece of this embroidery made its way to Britain in 1883 when Raja Gopal Singh presented a Chamba Rumal embroidered with a scene from the Mahabharata to the British and it was later added to the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Stich Is Key

Flawless needlework on the Chamba Rumals is derived from the art movement of combining miniature art with embroidery. They are usually made in square or rectangular fabric of different sizes. The base art, characterized by intricate lines, is drawn by miniature art experts. Once the art is complete, the embroidery—usually done by women—is accurately completed on the fabric. A fabric used is mostly naturally dyed silk floss on unbleached muslin or khaddar. National Award winner, Lalita Vakil says, “the picture on both sides of the fabric is almost the same. The drawing is done in outline with fine charcoal or with a fine brush. The embroidery is done using a double satin stitch carried forward and backward alternately in a variety of colors. Simultaneously both sides of the cloth are stitched so that the space on both sides is filled up making the design on both sides look equally effective and similar in content, thus this technique is called dorukha (two-faced).”

Chamba Rumal Stories (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)
Chamba Rumal Stories (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)

The stitch is carried both backward and forward and covers both sides of the cloth, giving it a smooth finish that is flat and gives the impression as if colors filled into a miniature painting. The best part is that the embroidered Rumal can be viewed from both sides and not a single knot is visible, and so it can be used from both sides. The embroidery is primarily done with a double satin stitch. The background is hardly visible but, it is very difficult to identify the right side. 

Over time, this embroidery has been done on coverings, belts, blouses, caps, scarves, pillow covers, household accessories, chaupar (a game of dice) cloths, bedstead, wall hangings, chandwas (ceiling covers), and pankhas (fans). 

Vibrant Colours Makes Lively

Very bright, vibrant, and bold colors of threads are used and the thread is untwisted silk floss, more commonly known as ‘Pat’. The colors which are mainly used are purple, pink, orange, carmine, deep red-brown, lemon and deep yellow, dark green, parrot green, ultramarine, and Persian blue, black and white. Silver wire (tilla) known as badla, is also used on the old Chamba Rumals.

Motifs and Themes

The motifs on these big-size Rumals have traditionally drawn from the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata,  figures of Krishna, his Gopis, scenes from the Bhagavad Puranas, nature, the daily life of Chamba, folk stories of the region, floral designs, etc. In the beginning, Raasmandala (an episode of the dance of Krishna) was the most popular design, followed by Gaddi Gaddan (man and woman of a shepherding tribe that resides in the hills of Himachal Pradesh). You’ll find themes like Kaliya Daman, Rukmini Haran, Ragas, Ashta Nayak, which depict the mood swings of the relationship between a male and a female as part of this art form. This art, where miniature painting meets weaving, opens up a world of stories carried through generations and traditions that speak of nature, faith, and life – thus, it functions as a piece of literature. 

Post-independence, freedom fighter and crafts revivalist, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, revived this art which was on the verge of death due to lack of patronage.


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi. 


 

Quilting: PreVedic Folk Art Woven from Saris

I stood outside the Deaf Initiative’s Keepsake Theme Quilts Center in Columbus on a mildly cold September morning. I was in the city attending the India Youth Advocacy & Disability Program under Columbus International Program (CIP). The name Keepsake Theme Quilts Center (KTQ) caught my attention because India also has a living tradition of quilt-making craft dating back 4,000 years. 

Meredith Crane, the super energetic Director of KTQ took us around and introduced us to the staff who were hearing impaired. Their Office Assistant Shonna took us through a brief presentation in sign language which was interpreted for us by volunteer interpreter Jessica.   

The Quiling Team at Keepsake Theme Quilts Center

This unique, personalized quilt-making center specializes in customized T-shirt quilts. We saw one such quilt in the making where T-shirts of various members of a family were cut into equal-sized pieces, then bound and stitched into a beautiful Memory Quilt. On another table, themed T-shirt logos were tacked and pinned to soft flannel fabric in preparation for a birthday present for a customer’s granddaughter. We assisted with the creative process – it was the most enjoyable activity of our program. 

T-Shirt Quilts

Keepsake Theme Quilts reminded me of the quilt-making culture in our country – one of the oldest forms of embroidery whose origins can be traced back to the ancient pre-Vedic ages. In India, different states produce different varieties of quilt –Koudis in Karnataka, Kanthas in Bengal and Odissa, Sujnis in Bihar, Ledras in Jharkhand, Gudris in Rajasthan, and the Goa quilts, to name a few. Unlike quilts from other parts of the world, Indian quilts are always created from old, discarded clothes. In Sanskrit, the word ‘Kantha’ means ‘rags’ , reflecting the fact that kantha embroidery is made up of discarded garments or clothes. Old saris, dhotis, and lungis are sewn into layers, first by simple running stitches along the edge and then all across the body. Heavier and warmer quilts use three to four layers of saris sewn together and encased in colorful sari borders. Traditionally, the thread used for stitching comes from the heavily threaded borders of the sari itself. 

Quiltmaking is one of the earliest forms of recycling. 

For centuries, embroidered quilts (kantha)were made in rural Bengal by Hindus and Muslims alike and initially only used by mendicants and fakirs. Much later they became an integral part of the art of Indian textiles.

Indian quilt stitching patterns are a simple but colorful patchwork of printed cloth or intricate designs and motifs.  Early kantha embroidery included motifs derived from ancient art, reflecting nature – the sun, the tree of life, and the universe. Symbols also included flowers, animals, birds, fish, themes of everyday life and geometrical shapes.

The Kanthas (according to expert sources) reflect India’s artistic textile heritage, and served primarily as light wraps, and in Bengal, small kanthas were traditionally used as swaddling cloths for babies. Bengal kanthas range from Lep kanthas (winter quilts) and Sujni kanthas (spreads and coverlets) to the Asan (a spread for sitting), the Bastani or Gatri (a wrapper for clothes and other valuables), the Arshilata (cover for mirrors), the Dastarkhan (a spread for placing food and plates during dinner), the Gilaf (an envelope-shaped kantha to cover the Quran) and the Jainamaz (prayer rug). 

In Karnataka, some interesting customs accompany the completion of a quilt. A quilt is considered a living entity that should not be left hungry, so quilters feed the ‘mouth’ of the quilt a little cooked rice or roti before it’s sealed. Another custom says a pregnant woman should not complete it otherwise her womb will close as well. 

Today, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this beautiful folk art, even though quilts have grown in popularity and commercial value.  There is a dearth of used materials like saris and dhotis as these soft, flowing clothes have been replaced today by western outfits which can’t be reused to make kanthas. The newer fabrics have a different look, feel, and character. Furthermore, today’s fast-paced life makes it impossible to dedicate the time required for quilt embroidery. Rural housewives in West Bengal played a significant part in the evolution of kantha embroidery. It was customary for them to use the typical running stitch and embroidery techniques to create quilts for their families, as well as embroider personal fabrics and garments such as sarees, dhotis and handkerchiefs with the simple, traditional kantha stitch. 

For centuries, the techniques of this hereditary craft were passed down from mother to daughter. With the advance of technology, the long days of quilt making by the women of the house during leisure hours or lazy monsoon months are gone. Now organized industries and NGOs hire women to make kanthas and earn their living. It is no longer based on personal involvement or individual artistry but a mechanized job of stitching given designs. In modern lifestyles old fashioned quilts have lost their use. Rugs have replaced sujnis, factory produced sheets adorn our beds instead of kantha spreads, readymade machine quilts replace handmade quilts, new shawls are preferred to old sari based kanthas and diapers have replaced the old-time swaddling cloth of babies. 

It is unfortunate that some quilting genres such as balaposh and the more intricate kanthas of Bengal are already vanishing. NGOs are stepping in to preserve this folk art form through revitalization movements, sometimes with State and Central government aid.

In my opinion, the changing lifestyle that caused the disappearance of quilt making has also led to depriving society of its benefits. The concentration and contemplation that goes into the harmonization of color, design and execution of each quilt is similar to that of a spiritual exercise and thus has a therapeutic effect on its maker. The warmth and joy of the quiltmakers get transferred through each seam into their creations.

I wouldn’t be surprised if these products are warmer and cozier than other quilts!


Anjana Chattopadhyay is a freelance Translator, Journalist, and Social Worker. Anjana runs her own NGO – Metta Foundation. She has authored two books in Bengali and also is a Member of the Council of International Programs (CIPUSA), an international social workers’ organization. Anjana loves to travel, exploring new places, new people, and new cultures. She lives in Kolkata.