It was in the 1980s when I put on an exhibition of my work on Chamba rumal at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi. Dr. Jyotindra Jain who was the curator of the museum appreciated my work and also showed me some beautiful old Chamba rumals among the exhibits in the museum. Some of them had become very old and worn out. He mentioned that while the craft was once popular, very few people now made rumal Chamba, which was mainly used as a decorative piece or to cover thaals at weddings. With few artisans to pursue this craft, this legacy would soon be lost forever. He asked me if I could do something different with the rumal while keeping its essence alive. He suggested that with my expertise, I should try to create it on silk and tussar, instead of regular muslin fabric.
This interaction with him opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. For the first time, I realized that this precious heritage must be preserved and brought to light so that more and more people know about it and adopt this profession. A new me has returned home to Chamba, rejuvenated with fervor to do something much more for the craft that had few takers, despite having once received the patronage of royalty.
My memory takes me back to the 1960s when, at the age of 16, I entered the famous Vakil family as a wife. In this family, art flourished. My husband, MS Vakil, along with his cousin, Dev Badotra, had studied at the JJ School of Arts, while my father-in-law, who was a well-established doctor in the area, was an art lover. Given my interest in knitting, embroidery and sewing, my family encouraged me to pursue my hobby. At that time, Chamba rumal was a dying art. Very few people made efforts to keep this legacy alive. One such person was Maheshwari Devi, who started a Chamba Rumal center in Chamba. She had even received the President’s Prize from the hands of Dr. Rajendra Prasad in 1965. As she was very close to our family, she suggested to my mother-in-law that I help her embroider. My mother-in-law gladly agreed and I, along with a friend, often helped her with her creations.
What started as a hobby quickly turned into a passion. Although I already knew the job, I took a two-year course at ITI, Chamba, to improve my skills. I got a lot of support from people around me, especially my late brother-in-law Dev Badotra, who was drawing and helping me with sketches, color schemes, themes and patterns. He also guided me to make the figures more detailed and realistic. Master Hansraj, who was the director of Rang Mahal here, made miniatures on cloth, which I embroidered. I noticed that in many old folk rumals there was a lack of proper finishing and no emphasis on detail. So I focused on presentation, making figures that seemed alive with expression. My Chamba rumals stood out and people gladly paid me more for my manual labor.
Subsequently, I started to organize exhibitions at the local Minjar Mela, which saw an encouraging response. This was followed by those from Surajkund and other places. Soon the whole world became my scene and I traveled to countries like France, Germany, Romania, UK, Nepal, etc., representing Indian handicrafts, especially Himachal , with the support of the central government.
I persuaded many girls and women in our neighborhood to learn the special embroidery technique to make rumal Chamba. I told them that a skill like this can help them become self-sufficient and even earn and save money. There were times when families were not so willing to send women out of the house. There, I would personally go and ask them to send them for training. I even met with the deputy commissioner and asked him to give a scholarship to female students learning the trade so that they could obtain financial assistance. Students started earning 20-25 rupees a month, which was a handsome sum in the late 1960s. Soon the number of girls willing to learn this trade increased. I gave trainings to students for free.
Making a Chamba rumal is time consuming due to the do rukha (double satin stitch) embroidery technique used and requires a lot of patience. A 1 x 1 foot rumal with a border on all sides and say Radha Krishna figurines in the middle or a Mahabharata act in the center can take 15-20 days. A small 3-4 inch figure takes two to three days to complete. Slow work can sometimes be frustrating as artisans often take shortcuts. This affects the quality of the product. You have to understand that it is a labor of love. So you can’t take it lightly. Today, most educated young people do not want to learn this trade. It is mainly girls from poor families who want to learn this trade.
Today, there are also many government measures in favor of craftsmen.
I feel lucky to have been a catalyst in the rebirth of such a beautiful profession. I am happy that my daughter-in-law Anjali Vakil continues this legacy. She recently received the President’s Medal. Chamba rumal is our heritage, and we must preserve it, otherwise it will be lost forever.
– The writer was awarded Padma Shri for his work on Chamba rumal (As told to Seema Sachdeva)