Making ends meet with a 'rumal'

Making ends meet with a 'rumal'

A handkerchief is a handkerchief. But for the women of Chamba, a town in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, it is much more than that. In fact, it is an integral part of local heritage, history, art and craft.

Once patronised by the local rulers, the Chamba rumal of that time was a two to four square feet piece of cloth, embroidered with do-rukhi or double satin stitch. The do-rukhi technique ensured exact duplication of the image on the reverse. Noble or upper-class women with deft fingers would embroider, with impeccable finish, muslin (malmal) or plain cotton with intricate motifs taken from nature or the scriptures.

It could be a hunting scene, a depiction of wild animals or an image of the Hindu deity Krishna dancing with milkmaids. These rumals were used to cover platters as gifts for auspicious occasions, as offerings to a deity or as tokens of goodwill to be exchanged during weddings.

When the system of royalty came to an end, so did this form of patronage. And with no available market to sell their pieces of art, the artisans turned to other professions, crafting only the occasional rumal on special request.

Reviving and re-training

Then the Delhi Council of Craft (DCC) stepped in. The DCC began its regeneration project for the rumal in the late 1990s. The one good thing was that people still knew how to do the do-rukhi stitches. All that was needed then was to re-train artisans, raise the quality of embroidery to acceptable standards and improvise patterns to make it, once again, a signature art of the region. Poornima Rai of DCC says: “The DCC first collected masterpieces of the Chamba rumal and reproduced 16 of them. For that the centre traced local women embroiderers, re-trained them and worked on patterns and colour schemes to enhance their standards. All this was done so that the rumals could be sold in the market.”

The revival process graduated to opening a centre, Charu, in Chamba, in 2001. Women could now go there to train, build on their skill and make the Chamba rumal on order. This effort has been going on for more than 10 years and has brought a dying art back to life. 

Today the craft has become an important source of income for its practitioners. Masto Devi (40), a state award winner, has been associated with the revival project for 15 years. She was among the 29 craftsperson who were retrained. Masto Devi proudly states, “As I evolved I was appointed as a teacher at the centre. I now teach and make Chamba rumal.” Trainees get a stipend of Rs 500.

When Masto’s husband passed away, leaving her with three little children to look after, she joined the centre at Charu. “Initially, I used to work in my spare time from home. I used to earn Rs 1,000 a month. Then it gradually increased to Rs 2,000 and then to Rs 3,000 a month. I get my salary of a teacher at the centre and apart from that I’m paid for whatever rumal I make. So, on an average, I earn Rs 10,000 a month,” says the master craftswoman.

Indu Sharma (28) joined the centre in 2002 as a trainee when the responsibility of looking after her family fell entirely on her after the demise of her father. “I was the eldest among my five siblings. I started with earning Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 a month, as I was very slow in embroidering. Later, the money went up to Rs 4,000 a month,” she says.
Then there are artists like Indu’s husband, Parikshit Sharma (32), a miniature painting artist, who can skillfully draw on fine handspun and handwoven unbleached muslin.  
The income the women bring home with all this hard work is well worth the effort. Even the husbands of women working at Charu are supportive. Parikshit says, “Women associated with Charu are not only supporting themselves but are also contributing to the household income. Moreover, women can embroider handkerchiefs anywhere at home or at the centre full time or part time.”

Today their labour of love and patience awaits bigger and more specialised markets. The DDC is planning to hold to hold grand exhibitions in Varanasi and Mumbai next year and they are also preparing to take the exquisite art to museums in the US in the near future.

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