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Chamba has a rich history of crafts including metal crafts, miniature paintings, weaving, leather work, wood carving, basketry and jewelry making. Over time, the number of artisan’s actually practicing traditional crafts has diminished but there is significant literature on the rich craft history and skill-base of the region and historical specimens can in local temples as well as the Bhuri Singh museum in Chamba.
The Chamba Rumal (literally handkerchief), is a form of embroidery that flourished in the eighteenth and early twentieth century in the mountain region of north India. Running through Chamba, Kulu, Kangra, Guler, Mandi and Suket (all part of Indian state of Himachal Pradesh),the craft witnessed explicit distinctions between 'elite' and 'folk art'.

The languishing craft of the'Chamba Rumal' refers only to the delicately embroidered rumals created by royal and elite women who had access to the professional services of trained miniature artists. These miniature artists not only drew the theme to be embroidered on the rumal in charcoal, but also provided the women who would be embroidering the rumal with a sophisticated colour palette, thus ensuring that the finished piece of embroidery was aesthetic, delicate and stylised, an 'image of a miniature painting on fabric'1.

The folk version of the rumal - which actually preceded the elite one - was characterised by 'primitive' figures and a bold colour palette. In this, the drawing and embroidery were both done by the peasant women themselves. Unlike the elite version of the Chamba rumal, which later became synonymous with the term 'Chamba Rumal', and is now categorised as a 'languishing' craft, the folk version continues to be embroidered in the area even today, used often for the same purposes that it was used for over a century ago: mainly for household and everyday use such as to cover gifts and offerings to the Gods, and being exchanged at the time of marriage between families of the bride and groom.

History and Tradition: Miniature art in Chamba

The history of the Chamba Rumal is linked with that of the rulers of Chamba. After the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb in 1707, the Mughal court went into decline. The Chamba king Raja Umed Singh (1748-68) then offered patronage to miniature artists from the Mughal courts. This patronage continued under Umed Singh's successors Raj Singh (1764-94) and Charat Singh (1794-1808).

Even before the exodus of the artists from the Mughal court, Chamba was not unfamiliar with miniature painting. Though the pahari rajas were independent rulers, they were under a larger canopy of Mughal suzerainty that allowed a flow of ideas and techniques from the Mughal court. The sensibility of the pahari miniature - considered the inspiration for artistic, design, and aesthetic expression of the Chamba Rumal - was proof of this cultural interaction. There is a strong link between pahari paintings and the embroidery on the rumals. The subject of the embroideries ranged from religious themes, embodying the strong Vaishnava fervour in the pahari regions, to themes from the great epics, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. Krishna surrounded by his gopis, godhuli (the hour of cow dust, with Krishna and his cow-herd friends bringing home the cows); the Radha-Krishna alliance are among the popular themes.

A range of everyday scenes, from court scenes and royal hunts, to depictions of the popular dice game of chaupad can be found on the rumals. Wedding processions are also depicted. The figures are made with painstaking care and the costumes and ornaments decorated minutely in the style of classical miniature paintings. Colourful floral and animal motifs - peacocks, snakes, horses, and elephants among others - are often interspersed among the main pictorial elements. The borders of the rumals are almost always a combination of floral and geometrical, usually depicting floral patterns within geometrical settings like parallel lines and squares.

The borders are created as a frame for the central picture, and serve to enhance it. 8 Each rumal is a colourful creation, even though the elite version of the rumal is more subtle in its colour combinations than the more primitive and bold juxtapositions found in the folk style, which commonly use pink, yellow, lemon, purple and green.