Himachal Pradesh is famous for Chamba Rumal embroidery. The Chamba Rumals are made of fine cotton or muslin and are embroidered with silk and sometimes with silver and silver gilt wire. It is presumed that the subjects were drawn in outline by the women themselves. However, certain unfinished rumais show such sophistication of drawing that it seems that they were drawn by the painters, usually in earth-red colour.
The town of Chamba, situated on the river Ravi, was one of the important centre of miniature painting as it developed in what was formerly known as the Punjab Hills. The Kangra style with the dreamlike quality of the background peopled with women of porcelain like beauty developed its own characteristics in Chamba.
While the painter was employed by his patron, the raja and his nobles, to record important happenings in the court, to paint mythological subjects, to depict the various musical modes (the Ragamala), the seasons (Baramasa) and to show lovers in various stages of the agony and ecstasy of love (nayika series), the ladies of the court produced the sama motifs with their needles and with an equal amount of skill.
They had a ready reference for their work in the murals executed in the rooms and verandahs of their quarters. These murals, the composite work of many artistes, were, in effect miniature paintings done on walls. The paintings were laid out in small panels usually 60 cm x 75 cm and were surrounded by floral borders. The ladies reproduced them in their embroidery down to the floral borders.
The rumals, handkerchiefs, were used on all festive occasions as a symbol of goodwill and affection. They were presented as gifts and were used for wrapping gifts exchanged at weddings.
They were also used for covering dishes full of food. A miniature painting of the 18th century in the Lucknow Museum shows a lady carrying a dish covered with an embroidered rumal.
The figures are finely drawn and life like and, especially in the nayak-nayika paintings the faces are strongly imbued with the expression desired to be depicted. Thus the Abhisarika Nayika “she who goes out to seek her lord” is shown so intent on her purpose that though she braves flashes of lightening and pouring rain, with snakes dashing across her path, she is not daunted but lifts her skirt and goes on. The Abhisandhita Nayika, “she who has rejected her beloved, sits in deep dejection while he turns his back and departs” holds up her hand as if pleading and looks towards her lover who has turned his back to her and is walking away. The Vipralabdha Nayika “she who keeps an appointment but her lover does not come” is shown standing beside an empty couch with her arms outstretched as she tears off her jewels and throws them on the ground. In the Calico Textile Museum at Ahmadabad there is a rumal showing eight heroines (Ashtanayika). Each is described in brush drawn in devanagri script. All, except two of the scenes take place indoors, the architecture being depicted by small domed pavilions on the roof. Each panel is separated by-a floral band and the action takes place within a specified space with enough blank space left around it to give it individuality and to separate it from the rest of the scenes. There is, so to say, embroidery within embroidery, costumes, cushions and carpets being decorated with floral patterns.
One of the favourite themes of the Chamba embroiderer as of the painter, were the playful antics of Krishna with Radha and other gopis. He is shown with her in various poses while gopis dance for their enjoyment and gopas play the conch shells and hold up the lotus flower as a salutation to the God. The rasalila in which Krishna dances with the gopis not as a single person but as a multiple manifestation of Himself so that each gopi finds herself dancing with Him individually is also a great favourite.
Other deities, such as Shiva, Ganesha, Durga, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, are also shown. In a rumal at the Indian Museum, Calcutta, they are shown attending a marriage. In scenes of festivity a variety of musical instruments such as the veena, the tanpura, cymbals and drums are played by both men and women.
Scenes of battle and hunting are depicted with great imagination and sensitivity. In the former the rumal will show one army pressing the attack into the enemy’s ground. Individual combat within the general battle shows men being unhorsed and swordsmen rushing in for the kill. A decapitated body is shown with the head lying to one side. In hunting scenes a variety of animals—bears, tigers, deer—are shown being attacked with various weapons—the muzzle gun, sword, spear, bow and arrow and the noose.
Chaupar, a game of dice played on two long bands of cloth joined together to form a cross, was a favourite game for both men and women. The embroiderer fills the middle ground with the decorated chaupar cloth while four sets of players sit on the four sides sometimes puffing on the hookah between moves and sometimes in animated conversation perhaps
discussing the next move.
Banana and other trees, the lotus, peacock, parrots, flowering shrubs, monkeys, deer, fishes, clouds, cranes, all give a natural background to the scene depicted. The canvas teems with life giving a tremendous sense of movement to the composition.
The embroidery is done in soft shades in small double darning stitches which appear the same on both sides. Outlines and details are worked in double running stitch and sometimes small patterns on costumes and other details are shown in coloured darning stitch. Satin and herringbone stitches, zigzag and interlaced running stitches couching for silver gilt wire, long and short and satin stitches, gross and blanket stitches are also used. The finest rumals are closer to painting than embroidery while the less sophisticated ones have the pattern only on one side and the stitches do not lie so close together.
All these rumals have floral borders on all four sides. The only exception to this, are the ones that were embroidered in geometric patterns on the lines of the bagh and phulkari work. These are either finished off with buttonhole stitch or the geometric pattern covering the cloth is considered complete in itself and no border is made.
Obviously, craftsmen showing such a high degree of skill are not going to restrain themselves to the production of a single item. Cholis, caps, hand fans, bed spreads, pillow covers and triangular pieces for wrapping books were all profusely and beautifully embroidered. However, these items show a much stronger folk influence that the rumals.
As in other parts of the country, Chamba Embroidery designs are also are based on nature, mythology, articles of everyday use and happenings of everyday life. Thus Gods and Goddesses, kings and ordinary men are shown in action or sitting sedately. Animals, birds and trees can be natural or highly formalised. Geometrical designs are also very popular.
Colors are bright and bold—orange, red, black, yellow, ultramarine, purple, pink and green.
The greatest influence on this Chamba Rumal work is that of Kathiawar and Punjab. In fact, some of the work done can be mistaken for that of Kathiawar. The similarity to the bagh of the Punjab is also unmistakable. Since the court work was imbued with these influences it was inevitable that they would filter down to the common people and enrich their work and their lives.